February 20, 2009

Dodgertown and the Decline of the Florida Grapefruit League

Great article here about Dodgertown and the changing dynamics of spring training in Florida. I've been following this story from afar for the last couple years primarily because the Reds decided last year to move from Sarasota to Goodyear, Arizona beginning in 2010. It seems like a lot of teams are chasing the promise of new facilities and new opportunities in the Cactus League. The Dodgers, White Sox, and Indians are moving their spring training to Arizona this year, and the Reds are following them next year.

While I am not exactly a regular spring training attendee, I am sad that the Reds are leaving Florida for Arizona. To me, spring training means the state of Florida and these random towns like Dunedin and Bradenton and Kissimmee and Lakeland and Port St. Lucie. These towns are synonymous with March baseball in my eyes, and I know that spring training serves as a rallying point and an economic engine for these small towns. I always figured that I would start taking regular trips down to Florida someday for spring training to see the Reds and some other teams on the west coast of Florida. Now that the Reds are moving to Arizona, those plans are not really viable.

As is almost always the case, a lot of the upheaval is about money. Some of these newer cities in Arizona are building brand new stadiums and amazing facilities to lure teams out of the state of Florida, and the Florida towns can't keep up. The city of Sarasota put up a referendum for a new stadium to keep the Reds, and it got voted down. With all the senior citizens down there, it's tough to win a ballot initiative for a new stadium. Anyway, this spring training scene has turned into a bit of an arms race, and now cities all over Florida are scrambling and competing against each other. Unfortunately, historic baseball towns like Dodgertown are getting left behind, and these Arizona cities keep coming up with cash and facilities to lure teams there (which is inexplicable given the housing and economic crisis in Phoenix and the entire Valley area).

While I can understand that baseball teams always need to be looking for new revenue streams, isn't there something to be said for brand development?? By moving to Arizona and chasing the stadium dollars, the Reds are tearing down a long tradition of playing spring training baseball in Florida. There are tons of people from Ohio and Kentucky who go down to the Sarasota area for Reds' spring training. Groups of guys who go down every year for a week, families with kids, Spring Breakers, retirees, you name it. And that's before you get into all the Reds fans who live in southwestern Florida who like to head over to Sarasota to see the Reds play in spring training. Florida is an easy 2 hour flight away from the Cincinnati area, and it's still on the Eastern time zone. The Reds have cultivated a long history in Florida, and Reds fans have embraced the southwest Florida area as a result.

By moving to Arizona, you take all that away. What Reds fans are going all the way out to Arizona for spring training?? There are no connections for Reds fans out there. No history with that area, very few retirees out there from Ohio, and it's a long flight and a lot of hassle. I have zero desire to go out there for spring training. And I know that I am not alone. You could make the same case for Tribe fans after 16 years at Winter Haven. I'm sure the new ballpark in Goodyear is a phenomenal facility, but is it worth it for your brand?? Isn't part of the reason you have spring training so that you can build some excitement for the upcoming season with your fanbase up in Cincinnati??

Anyway, it will be interesting. I personally think it's a mistake for the Reds to move out there. And as for Florida towns like Dodgertown and Sarasota, I hope they eventually get the last laugh and bring major league baseball back to their towns. Nothing beats the Grapefruit League for me.

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