In the past 15 years, the business of MLB Spring Training has changed significantly.
As developmental needs increase and fans find the allure of Spring Training more enticing, teams have pushed for upgrades, with almost all facilities new or majorly renovated in the past two decades.
Mark Hyman, assistant teaching professor of management at George Washington University, where he teaches a program on the business of Spring Training, said that while teams pony up some of the money on their own, cities and states are eager to chip in.
“It’s the promise of a return on that investment,” Hyman said. “There is a belief that baseball brings tourists, and tourists bring credit cards and cash, and the local communities benefit financially from being a baseball destination.”
Whether those economic impact theories are correct – and Hyman said there are persuasive arguments on both sides – the money is pouring in from local municipalities. With the added financial pressure, teams and stadium operators are focused on providing more year-round activities to bring more money to the Spring Training venues.
“If you’re putting public money into these things, you have to find help to pay the bills,” Hyman said.
Many venues serve as a home for minor league teams during the season, in addition to maintaining full-time development and rehab programs. But more are also offering youth, amateur and collegiate tournaments.
Hyman said some of the sites get creative with uses like car shows, or in the case of the Baltimore Orioles facility in Sarasota, Florida, hosting an orchestra at Ed Smith Stadium.
Still, what used to be an expense on the budgets of MLB teams has turned into a revenue generator, Hyman said.
“Teams are no longer taking a loss,” he said. “Each time a stadium goes up, you can be confident they’re adding seats, luxury options. It’s a profit center now.”
The Milwaukee Brewers finished up a renovation to their facility in Phoenix last year, and contributed more than $56 million to the project, while the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority added approximately $5.7 million, and the city of Phoenix $2 million for the next five years. The Brewers are committed to the facility until 2042.
The Brewers have also sold the naming rights in conjunction with those of the team’s stadium in Milwaukee.
The deal for Miller Field expires next year and the team has and has already lined up a replacement, American Family Insurance, on a 15-year contract.
While financial details weren’t disclosed, American Family also secured the rights to the Brewers Spring Training facility in Phoenix, now already called American Family Fields.
Along with Spring Training, the fields also play home to two minor league teams, amateur and collegiate tournaments and community events.
The facility is home to the Brewers’ year-round baseball development program, and the renovation ensures its quality for players and staff, as well as the communities surrounding it.
“It has been our aim all along to have the Brewers Spring Training venue enhance the surrounding local area in Maryvale and spur on further economic growth,” Tyler Barnes, Brewers senior vice president of communications and affiliate operations, said.
The Brewers aren’t the only team with a recently renovated and renamed ballpark.
Before a $102 million renovation finishing up this spring in Dunedin, Florida, the Toronto Blue Jays had a facility ranked in the bottom of the league, Shelby Nelson, Blue Jays director of Florida operations, said. The team paid $40 million, while the state, county, and city governments covered the rest.
The facility is used 365 days a year by the organization as a developmental facility and minor league stadium, and Nelson said the renovations would benefit the team on the field and the business while ensuring they’ll remain at the same site they’ve called spring home since 1977.
“We wanted to stay here,” Nelson said. “We’re the only team never to change Spring Training homes, and we’re proud of that.”
Nelson said part of the desire to stay stems from the large contingent of Canadians who make their way to Florida in the spring and their ability to correctly pronounce Dunedin.
The large Canadian part-time population and visitors help make sponsors work both in Toronto and Dunedin, like the airline WestJet. With minor league teams based in the stadium, the organizations also bring in sponsors like Eddie’s Bar & Grill.
Nelson said the renovations and Canadian appeal made sense to extend naming rights to Toronto-based TD Bank, which has a significant operation in Florida.
While teams have flipped the script in budgets in regards to Spring Training, there’s a risk involved with pushing the limits and losing why fans flock to places like Florida and Arizona for these games.
“It’s a delicate balance. The appeal of Spring Training is the smallness and intimacy,” Hyman said. “Having a different view, getting autographs, running into a player at the clubhouse, all that appeal and mystique. The more seats you add, the bigger the facilities get, the less intimate and the aspects of what makes it special is diminished.”
“Some ballparks have already lost some of that and are more like minor league parks,” he said.