Gary Sheffield thinks the Tampa area needs another Spring Training team

According to The Laker/Lutz News (a local Tampa suburb publication), former MLB star Gary Sheffield is supporting a group building a huge baseball complex in Wesley Chapel, an area just north of Tampa city limits.

And Sheffield, a Tampa resident, said it would be a great place for the Atlanta Braves to move their Spring Training.

Like the Dunedin Blue Jays, the Braves Spring Training lease is set to expire in 2017. Currently, the Braves train in the Walt Disney World Complex and have since 1998.

I am not sure how much pull Shef has with the Braves. Could he make this happen? Could he pull the right strings?

Admittedly, his idea has some good points. But it also has some points that have no claim on reality.

According to Sheffield,

“They (the Braves) don’t want to be second to Disney,” Sheffield told a group of business leaders recently at a Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce economic development meeting. “The problem they are having is that the fans coming to the games there are not Braves fans. They are there for Disney, and that is a problem for them.”

In Sheffield’s defense, this is understandable. Trying to link baseball to tourism is a horrible idea, unless the stadium is a destination, such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or Yankee Stadium. It’s not a good idea for a spring training stadium, especially when the Braves and Disney have nothing in common.

Looking at Braves spring training attendance, we can also see the Braves may be concerned. Whereas Grapefruit League attendance went up 4% last year, the Braves stayed exactly the same. Since 2006, their Spring Training average attendance per game has dropped from 9,498 to 7,490. That attendance, however, is still in the top half of attendance in the Grapefruit League.

So how much concern should there be?

Sheffield also thinks the Wesley Chapel location would be more convenient because it is located off I-75 and is a “straight shot” up to Atlanta. Ok, that’s an acceptable point.

But he also thinks Braves fanbase would be better served with the near Tampa location.

“That is an easy commute for them,” Sheffield said. “All those fans could come straight here, plus go to other places like Disney and Clearwater Beach, since they would be close by. That is a possibility that is pretty much there for the taking.”

If Sheffield thinks linking the Braves to Disney is a bad idea, why does he suggest fans go can go to Disney World on their trips to see the Braves?

And how close is the fanbase?

According to the NY Times/Facebook fan survey, the Braves Florida stronghold is North Florida. South of the northern-most counties, the Braves have an over 9% fanbase along the East Coast down to Volusia County, home of Daytona. The west side of the state is predominantly Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox fans. Wouldn’t the Braves be better off in a place like Daytona? Or perhaps the abandoned Cocoa Expo, the former Brevard County spring home of the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins? That is a little south of their fanbase, but it is only a few highway exits from the Nationals spring home.

The owner of the upcoming complex, James Talton also has his own pie-in-the sky notions. I’m not sure how accurate this claim this, but knowing how flimsy most economic claims are, I doubt its truthiness.

Even without a major stadium component, Talton feels his sports complex could play a role in creating 8,000 jobs in the county, and produce $318 million in annual economic impact, as well as a direct revenue stream of $9 million each year to the county government. But if the project could attract a Major League team, there’s no telling how big of an impact that would have in the Wesley Chapel area, Talton said.

Continuing to razzle and dazzle with pie-in-the-sky ideas, Talton think his complex could draw more than Steinbrenner Field, the top drawing Spring Training complex located in the middle of Tampa.

Just no. No way. Not possible.

“We would want to put in up to 12,000 seats, but that could be a little ambitious,” he said. “A lot of what we hear from the league is that they want to have no more than 8,000 seats, because they want to make sure they are filled.”

Because 8,000 is realistic.

Talton also said his facility would be quicker to create revenue than a new Rays stadium.

Creating a separate field for spring training would not be anywhere near the headache the Tampa Bay Rays are experiencing with its efforts to get out of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. In fact, spring training fields are typically much smaller than regular season venues, Talton said, where average attendance usually holds around 6,700.

But that’s exactly the problem. Adding the Braves to the area would either create new Braves fans or solidify fandom in a market the Rays really need to penetrate and capture. That would be five Spring Training complexes in the Tampa Bay area. Even if we assume most Spring Training revenue is generated from tourists, there is still a presence and a small amount of local dollars going to a team that is not the local Major League squad.

Unfortunately for the Rays, I don’t think there is any recourse in using territorial rights to limit Spring Training market encroachment.

A lot has to happen before the Braves consider moving to the area, and again, I’m not sure how much pull Gary Sheffield has. But this is an idea that should be squashed before it even hatches.

(h/t to Shadow of the Stadium for finding this.)

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