End our spring baseball shutout: Marlins should run home
By Michael Lewis
As a Miami ballpark rises on time for a 2012 opening and on budget for $3 billion in tax spending, Major League Baseball shows its gratitude by wiping out South Florida spring games for the first time in more than 60 years.
Paradoxically, while in-season games in a $3 billion ballpark will add nothing to our economy, now-lost spring games actually did add local jobs and spending.
So while we bowed to pressure to empty our wallets on a stadium or risk losing the Florida Marlins, a few miles north baseball removed the Baltimore Orioles after 14 years as an engine of spending.
While the Marlins' impact in six months here is close to zero, the Orioles generated about $47 million and 7,000-plus jobs each spring.
It's a puzzle why big league summer games are worth so much less locally than spring games that mean nothing to league standings — but it's so.
Studies at regular season games have shown that at best 1% visited overnight primarily to attend. The Marlins' 2009 average of 18,770 tickets means about 188 out-of-towners came here per game.
Spring is far different.
A study for the Florida Sports Foundation found that 23.1% of the average 6,030 at each 2009 spring game came from another state or nation primarily for baseball. That's 1,393, more than seven times as many as a summer game.
In fact, of the 1.56 million who attended Florida spring games in 2009, 48% were from out of state, including some who didn't come primarily for baseball but made it one added reason to visit.
Those 361,032 who came primarily for baseball in the six-week training period spent $571.8 million that Florida wouldn't otherwise have had.
Many spring fans vacation to see their hometown team play, timing trips to baseball. At all Florida spring games in 2009, 5.3% came from New York, 3.9% from Canada, 3.4% from Philadelphia, 3% from Minneapolis and 2.4% from Boston.
Those coming just for baseball topped average spring attendees in education and had far more income, with 44.9% over $80,000. And they spent an average of $371.56 daily, as 46% shopped, 17% visited museums and historical sites, 12% went to performing arts presentations, 34% to nature-based locations and 22% golfed. When they come for spring baseball, we get bang for their bucks in every area.
Spring baseball also brings 'em back. Last year, 30% made their first spring visit but more than 95% said they'd return, a percentage that ripples through an economy.
One more thing: while the few out-of-towners at summer games might view a three-day series, the average spring game visitor stays 7.53 nights — mostly in hotels.
Higher income, longer stays and extraordinary return percentages equal true value from spring games — and they don't use huge stadiums, either.
None of that spending do we get from our soon-to-open $3 billion "investment" in baseball, but it's the spring value — which comes after our winter visitor season when hotels need a shot in the wallet — that was just ripped out of South Florida as our reward for mortgaging our future for four decades for a stadium.
South Florida's long spring baseball history started in the 20-year-old City of Miami in 1916 with the Boston Braves. Miami has hosted the Cincinnati Reds (1920), Brooklyn Dodgers (1933 and 1950-1958), New York Giants (1941-1942), St. Louis Browns (1947) and Baltimore Orioles (1959-1988).
Miami Beach also welcomed the boys of spring: New York Giants (1934-1935), Philadelphia Phillies (1940-1942 and 1946), Pittsburgh Pirates (1947).
Fort Lauderdale had the Yankees from 1962 to 1995, then the Orioles, who left after last season. With West Palm Beach also bare of former teams like the Athletics (1946-1962) and Braves (1963-1997), the nearest East Coast spring game now is in Jupiter, where the Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals train.
Why are we shut out of spring baseball when we spent like maniacs for summer?
Certainly not for lack of a ballpark.
Although the Marlins reject Sun Life Stadium, it handled 18,000-plus fans a game last year.
We also built a top-of-the-line spring home 19 years ago that's still awaiting a major league tenant.
To lure big leaguers, Homestead built a $22 million, 6,500-seat stadium with dorms for 200 players and signed up the Cleveland Indians for two springs with options for 20 more.
But they never used the park. After Hurricane Andrew, they moved "temporarily" to Winter Haven — and broke their commitment.
Remember that so-called ironclad agreement that keeps the Marlins here? Well, Major League Baseball has final say about whether a team need honor any deal. The Indians didn't, and the city got not a penny in return.
Baseball says it won't return to South Florida for spring because teams would be too far apart, but with two fine ballparks already and a third to open in two years, Miami-Dade could handle three spring teams with no travel at all.
In fact, there's no reason the Marlins, beneficiaries of our $3 billion gift to owner Jeffrey Loria and Co., shouldn't be one of them.
We're building them the house. They have Homestead at the ready. And they have our money.
The least they could do is return a pittance of our $3 billion largesse by leaving spring spending and jobs here — a return we don't get the rest of the year.
The Tampa Bay Rays, after all, have trained at home in St. Petersburg since their 1998 founding. They at least respect hometown fans and wallets.
Why not the Marlins? When is Major League Baseball going to start giving us back even a thin dime?