Thoughts on MLB reaction to Braves in Pinellas

Last week, Pinellas County and the Atlanta Braves sent shockwaves through the business of baseball in Tampa Bay. By filing a proposal for land in the Toytown area, the Braves expressed their desire to move their Spring Training location from Disney’s Wide World of Sports to Pinellas County.

The day after the announcement, I wrote that the Braves proposal was a bad idea for three reasons: Demographics, Economics, and Territory Rights.

Now we can add a 4th: Because MLB said so.

On Friday, MLB released the following statement:

“Earlier this week, Major League Baseball and the Tampa Bay Rays learned of the St. Petersburg Sports Park proposal for the first time.  Major League Baseball appreciates the support that it has received for the construction of Spring Training facilities throughout the State of Florida. The most pressing need, however, is the construction of a Major League-quality facility for the Rays.

“Major League Baseball is committed to working with the Rays to secure a new ballpark in cooperation with the Tampa Bay region.  This can only happen with the support of local political and business leaders.”

That is MLB swinging the hammer.

Last week, I wrote:

If I was a betting man, I would say the Rays have already blocked this from happening. Or they have their legal team ready play the territory card. And I would also bet the Rays are not happy with Pinellas County for opening up the bidding and allowing the Braves to place a bid.

Given the wording of the MLB press release, it is apparent the Rays complained.

Where I was off however, was the perception of territorial rights. According to Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times, territorial rights don’t apply to Spring Training.

Major League Baseball also declined to comment on Atlanta’s proposal, but did confirm that a league rule prohibiting teams from encroaching on one another’s territory doesn’t apply to spring training.

How territorial rights don’t apply to Spring Training is beyond me. It absolutely should. The question isn’t “does one training facility encroach on another?”, such as in the case of Dunedin and Clearwater. The question is “does Spring Training have an economic and market impact on regional Major League clubs?”

The answer to that is YES.

Let’s look at this logically, not traditionally. (And by the way, if “that’s the way it has always been” is the reason, you might as well play 81 daytime doubleheaders with pitchers throwing underhand to batters wearing wool uniforms.)

There is only a certain amount of revenue in a market. Additional revenue arrives via tourism. There are usually upper levels, lower levels, and averages to tourism. Add tourism and local revenue, and you get the total revenue possible for an attraction designed to attract tourists, such as Spring Training or Busch Gardens.

But here is the problem: not every visitor to Busch Gardens or Spring Training is a tourist. We don’t have many overall studies, but the latest in 2009 stated Clearwater and Dunedin had the highest tourist rates (nearly 75%) and the Yankees were closer to 40%. Given the higher Yankees attendance, these numbers are not valued the same.

Let’s estimate Spring Training attendance is typically 55% tourists. That means 45% of Spring Training attendees are local and 45% of all ticket revenue is local dollars going to teams that reside outside of Tampa Bay, not to the Rays.

If you base how a team can survive on the market’s annual discretionary income, how is their spending in February and March not competition? Local fans’ potential to spend doesn’t magically regenerate at the end of Spring Training. If they bought tickets March 31, they have less money to spend on April 1.

(For those who bring up the Cactus League and the Diamondbacks, yes, more teams train the Phoenix area than near the Rays and Marlins. But can’t all three teams have the same complaint? Perhaps the Diamondbacks are less impacted because Phoenix is nearly twice the size of Tampa Bay (5 million to 2.8 million). However, Phoenix is also on the list of cities that are economically stretched too thin to support all their sports.)

There is also evidence Spring Training is not the boon to tourism some make it out to be. From the Palm Beach Post in 2014:

In Florida markets that have no spring training or lost teams, tourism spending jumped 21 percent from March 2008 to March 2013, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of data from the state Office of Economic & Demographic Research. In the metro areas that host the Grapefruit League’s 15 teams, tourism spending rose only 15 percent during the same time.

So if locals spend their money on baseball that is not the Major League product, and Spring Training is not a magic attraction for tourists, then why is it in the same region as the team with the lowest attendance in Major League Baseball?

How is that fair to the Major League product? How is that not diverting funds that could be in the pocket of the Tampa Bay Rays?

Despite this simple economic logic, Pinellas politicians remain ignorant. From the Tampa Bay Times:

Many county leaders embraced the Braves project. One of them, County Commissioner Ken Welch, said he didn’t see why the two prospects were mutually exclusive.

He’d like to see a deal struck with the Rays. But another spring training in Pinellas County is a big deal, too.

“We can multitask,” he said. “We can’t say no to all other future opportunities.”

Yes, you can say no. And you should. Doing otherwise is disingenuous to the Major League team, which should be your priority if you consider the region a “Major League region”.

The idea of where to spend public dollars will only get more interesting next year when the agreement between the City of Dunedin and the Blue Jays expires. The Blue Jays want upgrades to their Spring Training facilities. What if Pinellas County allows funds for expansion of the Blue Jays facility in order to keep them in the area?

Isn’t that violating MLB’s focus for the region and their aforementioned statement? Would MLB be ok with maintaining the status quo? Or do they want the Blue Jays to move out so they can slowly clear the area for the Rays?

I would be very surprised if the Blue Jays Spring Training had a bigger economic impact and return on investment than the proposed Braves sports megaplex. Losing the Blue Jays might hurt the City of Dunedin, but its effect on the region as a whole would probably be negligible.

As a reminder, most of the other regional Spring Training agreements end in the 2020s, just before the Rays use agreement with Tropicana Field ends. Is the MLB plan to move all the teams out, help the Rays get a new stadium, and allow the Rays a monopoly in the region similar to that of other small market teams such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or Milwaukee?

I’m afraid we haven’t heard the end of politicians suffocating and sabotaging the Tampa Bay baseball market.

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