Spring baseball brings economic boon to Manatee County

Spring baseball brings economic boon to area

jsalman@bradenton.comFebruary 10, 2012 

MANATEE -- The smell of fresh cut grass, stadium hot dogs and draft beer is in the air.

With spring training baseball just around the corner, tourism-driven businesses across Southwest Florida are preparing for that economic boon the games pitch each year.

Thousands of out-of-town visitors are expected to flock to the Manatee-Sarasota area next month to join the thousands more locals attending a Pittsburgh Pirates or Baltimore Orioles spring training game.

Direct spending as a result of those trips is estimated to surpass $100 million between the two counties -- filling seats at area restaurants, beds at hotels and creating about 650 temporary jobs.

“One of the biggest things we have going for us is that the weather in Pennsylvania this time of year is not the greatest,” said Trevor Gooby, director of Florida operations for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “People make it their annual vacation.”

The latest study measuring the financial impact of Grapefruit League spring training in 2009 found games from the 16 Major League Baseball teams in Florida at the time pumped $752.3 million into the economy, or about $47 million per team.

That tally includes $284.2 million in new labor income.

The Florida Sports Foundation, a state division that compiled the study, said those numbers have grown since, as indicated by recent attendance counts.

The Pittsburgh Pirates saw record attendance at McKechnie Field in Bradenton last year, with 88,003 ballpark visitors.

Team officials say the allure surrounding McKechnie Field, first built in 1923, adds to the stadium’s draw. The stadium also will have a just-approved $7.5 million city loan for a boardwalk-like outfield structure, new seating, a new sound system, and tiki bar, among other improvements.

The Orioles’ game attendance at the newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota also set an all-time record last year with than more than 115,500 fans -- a 12 percent jump over the year before. The team played before crowds exceeding 8,000 in eight of its 16 home games.

Statewide, spring training attendance has topped 1.5 million 10 of the past 12 years, according to the Florida Sports Foundation.

“Even in down travel years, spring training has held up relatively well,” organization spokesman Nick Gandy said. “A lot of these people come specifically for spring training first, then they see the other amenities Florida has to offer.”

The foundation’s study shows nearly one in four spring training attendees is an out-of-state visitor, staying an average of 7.53 nights and spending an average of $371.28 per day.

Local tourism officials have upped their marketing strategy to further boost those numbers.

In Sarasota, the visitor’s bureau has billboard advertising signs in Baltimore’s Camden Yards and a box there to entertain national travel writers. Those amenities were funded through a $1 million marketing plan the Orioles donated as part of its local agreement.

Game broadcasts alone have the potential to reach an estimated 6 million households in the mid-Atlantic market -- an area where advertising is typically too pricey for the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau’s budget.

The Pirates spring training games in Bradenton are broadcast in the Pittsburgh market, giving the city more recognition in the northeast.

“Radio shows are produced out of local hotel lobbies, and that air time is huge for us,” spokeswoman Erin Duggan said. “We make sure the broadcasters also plug the things they do at night.”

Between the Pirates and Orioles, more than 600 players, coaches and staff, as well as their families, come to the Manatee-Sarasota area for spring training. Most pitchers and catchers report Feb. 18, with games in early March.

The baseball buzz comes as welcome news to the local businesses fighting to emerge from a stagnant economy.

“Baseball really does bring an increase in visitors,” said Shelley Baumgarder, operations support manager at Homewood Suites by Hilton in Sarasota. “It’s our busiest time of the year. The hotel is full every night.”

The restaurants, especially those near the ballparks, also see strong upticks in business.

Gaetano Cannata, owner-chef at Ortygia, just a few blocks from McKechnie Field, has earned a loyal customer base from the Northeast.

Every year, a growing number of families from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania come to his Sicilian restaurant for a meal after recommendations from friends who previously dined there following a game.

“We have families that come back every year,” Cannata said. “Anything like that helps. It really does.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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