Rays and Braves should swap spring training locations

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During the offseason, the Atlanta Braves began negotiations to find a new spring training home. Last year, they looked toward Pasco and Pinellas County. In late 2016, Braves officials met with Sarasota County officials. In late January 2017, plans were submitted on the construction of a 6,500 seat stadium in Sarasota where the Braves would play from 2019 to 2049.

According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal, the Braves new spring training complex will cost approximately $75 to $80 million dollars. According to Shadow of the Stadium, the Braves will pay none of the cost up front – the entire cost will be from state and county funds.

Of course, the government of Sarasota County wants a spring training team because …. some reason. Despite what elected officials claim, there are many studies that debunk the idea that spring training has a huge economic impact.

The reason the Braves want to move from their current location is because “the vast majority of teams in Florida’s Citrus League play along either the state’s east or west coasts, making the bus rides to play competitors too long” according to the Executive Editor of the Atlanta Business Journal.

(Although this is cited without evidence and without financial impact on the billion dollar franchise, we will accept it as fact for the case at hand.)

The Braves currently play at Champion Stadium at Disney World, the same stadium the Rays played select regular season games in 2007 and 2008. Which leads me to a strategic solution that would save taxpayer money, solve the Braves location problem, and help the Rays build their fanbase:

Starting in 2018, the Rays and Braves should swap spring training locations. The Rays should move from Port Charlotte to Disney World and the Braves should take the Rays spring home in Port Charlotte. The Braves should assume the Rays’ contract with Port Charlotte and the Rays should sign a new contract with Disney’s Wide World of Sports.

The first beneficiary of this spring home swap is the taxpayers of Sarasota County, who no longer have to pay the Braves the money necessary for the Braves to engage in their business in Sarasota County. Since the Braves’ sole purpose in moving is to be closer to other spring training competitors, this move would put them near the Red Sox, Twins, Pirates, Yankees, Phillies, and Blue Jays. Exactly where they want to be for far less cost to taxpayers.

Because there is no Braves fanbase to worry about, the Braves can move anywhere. They believe their fans will find them, whether that be at Disney World, Pinellas, Pasco, or Charlotte County.

Fanbase is exactly why a move to Disney World would be a major win for the Rays. In 2009, the Rays moved to Port Charlotte to  expand their fanbase to the South. Port Charlotte is a town of 54,000 people. In 2014, the New York Times plotted baseball fandom by zip code. Zip code 33948, home of Charlotte Sports Park was 29% Rays, 20% Yankees, and 16% Red Sox. If we assume 50% of residents are baseball fans, the breakdown of baseball fans in Port Charlotte is:

  • 7,830 Rays fans
  • 5,400 Yankees fans
  • 4,320 Red Sox fans

Other fans attending games in Port Charlotte are a mix of fans from other similarly divided counties. According to Ryan Holleywell of Governing.com, the Rays paid $4 million dollars to move from Al Lang Stadium in St Pete, where they were not growing their fanbase at all, to Port Charlotte, where they may be winning fans by the dozens. At the time, moving to Port Charlotte was cheap and convenient, but for a team needing to win the hearts and minds of baseball fans throughout Florida, Port Charlotte is no longer the best place for the Rays to prepare for the season.

Moving to Disney World is the perfect way for the Rays to capture the Orlando market. According to the aforementioned New York Times fan map, the Rays are the third most popular team in the Orlando area, far behind the Yankees and Red Sox. Some zip codes had as much as 41% Yankees fans to only 9% Rays fans. Orlando is Yankees Country. The Rays need to penetrate that market.

In 2006, the Tampa Bay Times published an article discussing the Rays attempts to grow their fanbase throughout the state. According to writer Eduardo Encina,

Why is Orlando important?

The Rays want to expand their fan base every way possible. The spring training move to Port Charlotte in 2009 embeds them in the south, and they’ve talked about efforts north into Ocala and Gainesville, but commanding Orlando, the 20th largest media market in the country, is instrumental in their regional efforts. The Rays haven’t had much presence in Orlando. That’s changing, albeit slowly. Bright House cable is scheduled to air 67 games this season in the Orlando area, up from 25 last season.

Ten years later, Orlando is still important. On population alone, it is more important than Port Charlotte. There are more potential fans and more money in the only major US market without professional baseball. To stay in Port Charlotte when the Orlando market is available is passing up a great opportunity, even if it means breaking the final 12 years of the lease agreement with Port Charlotte.

For years, fans have advocated the construction of a new Rays stadium in Downtown Tampa or near the Hard Rock Casino to make baseball more convenient for Rays fans in Lakeland and Orlando. Moving spring training to Disney World would finally capitalize on those fans.

The Rays have used Disney’s Wide World of Sports in previous years to increase their Central Florida footprint, and they should do again. This time on a permanent basis.

If this were to happen, the Rays gain the ability to grow their fanbase, Port Charlotte still keeps a spring training client, the Braves acquire the spring training location they are looking for, and the people of Sarasota County don’t have to spend their tax dollars on a new baseball facility. The only losers would be the politicians of Sarasota County who can no longer kowtow to the wishes of a professional sports team.

While writing this, I realized in late 2015 Jared Ward of DRaysBay wrote a post about the Rays moving to Disney World. When writers with the same passions both come to the same conclusions, idea should be repeated every so often.

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