AUBURNDALE – Florida’s tradition of spring training baseball dates back quite a way — to 1888, when the Washington Statesmen traveled to Jacksonville to take advantage of this state’s warmer climate and have team members work out in the “off season.”
In the past 120 years, those “off season” workouts have proven to be a huge economic benefit to the state. An economic impact survey compiled during the 2009 season by the firm Bonn Marketing Research group of Tallahassee, estimated that Florida Spring Training Baseball provides this state with a $753 million economic impact each year.
Polk County, which serves as the Spring Training home to the Detroit Tigers, knows how critical this is for a county that also hosts plenty of regional, national and world championship events.
‘’We’re sort of in a unique situation here,’’ said Mark Jackson, Central Florida’s Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing director. ‘’We combine the Detroit Tigers Spring Training, which is the longest running relationship in baseball with one community, with our collegiate invitational, which beings 120 teams here each year. We prepare for baseball here more than a lot of other baseball destinations.”
The Detroit Tigers, playing their 76th spring training season in Lakeland, increased their total attendance for the fourth consecutive year in 2012, according to figures compiled by Florida Sports, a state agency and division of Enterprise Florida. This year, the Tigers attracted more than 134,000 fans who attended 17 games at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.
The Tigers’ total attendance increased by more than 15,000, and the per game attendance shot up by more than 900 per game. As Jackson noted, that’s particularly encouraging because the Tigers and the city of Lakeland have the longest-standing relationship of any team playing in a spring training city than any other team in Major League Baseball.
‘’We haven’t even crunched all the data from it yet, but it’s certainly an important component to our economy,’’ Jackson said. “The latest study by the Florida Sports Foundation found the economic impact on average to be about $47 million, and that’s the total economic impact, direct and indirect spending, from the spring training. It’s a great economic engine for us.’’
Polk County isn’t alone. The office of Gov. Rick Scott noted that more than 1.6 million fans attended the 233 games of Florida’s 2012 season, setting a new per game attendance record, with an average of 6,965 fans attending games during the month of March alone.
In the 233 games played in 14 Florida cities over the course of 33 days, a total of 1,622,957 fans passed through stadium turnstiles. Only three games got rained out in the 2012 Florida Grapefruit League season, with all three coming on Sunday, March 11.
“Florida’s great weather and sporting events like spring training continue to draw people to our state,” the governor noted in a statement issued to the press. “We are grateful to all of the visitors and businesses that made Spring Training a success and look forward to another exciting season of baseball.”
The attendance figures compiled by Florida Sports were taken from daily box scores.
There were several local records broken this year. The Atlanta Braves, playing at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, had a total attendance of 127,321, with 7,489 fans on average per game. The largest crowd they got was when 10,755 showed up to watch the Braves take on the New York Yankees on Saturday, March 10.
The Detroit Tigers, playing at Joker Marchant Stadium, did even better, with a total attendance of 134,899, or 7,935 fans on average per game. The largest crowd they got in a single day was on Saturday, March 24, when 10,115 showed up to see the Tigers versus the New York Yankees.
By comparison, the Houston Astros, playing at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, had 56,379 in total attendance, or 4,027 people on average per game, with the largest crowd drawn on Saturday, March 31, as 5,774 attended to see the matchup between the Astros and the New York Yankees.
Jackson said he hopes the interest in these games introduces more people to not only visit but stay longer in Polk County and see what it has to offer, including plentiful outdoor recreational activities, and special events like the upcoming Ironman 70.3 competition in Haines City.
Haines City will be hosting the annual Ironman 70.3 Florida athletic competition at Lake Eva Park on Sunday, May 20. During the competition, athletes will engage in a 1.2-mile swim in Lake Eva, a 56-mile bike course through Citrus Orchards in Polk County, and a 13.1-mile run course around the lake and throughout the park.
“That’s the next big event, especially for the spring, that we recruited here,” said Kris Kepris, the tourism sales and marketing manager for Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. “That’s going to be a huge event.”
For one thing, Kepris said, it means thousands of people in downtown Haines City — and not just on the day of the competition.
“Their dealine has not even passed yet, and there will be at least 2,000 participants among the adults, and they’re already at 200 klids for the Iron Kids event, Kepris said. ”And Lance Armstrong is going to be one of the professionals racing in the event.”
Armstrong is a professional road racing cyclist who won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times after having survived testicular cancer. He is also the founder and chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and support.
Kepris said his office is working with Haines City city leaders and those at Lake Eva Park to promote this event.
“We’ve been working with them, and just this past weekend they had the Ironman coordinated training sessions and people out there training,” Kepris said. “It’s going to have an impact — not just on the weekend of the event, but the weeks leading up to it.”
‘’We have here all sorts of other events, and sports is a powerful economic engine for us – and not just for the six weeks of scheduled training,” Jackson said. ‘’We have outside events as well. We do about 220 events a year, and it’s just an ongoing thing for us. There’s just tons of events that we do.”