The Chicago Cubs may very well leave their spring training home in Mesa, Ariz., for a plush facility somewhere else, but the odds of that facility being in Sarasota are slim, according to Robert Brinton, president of the Cactus League Association.
With the exception of 1966, the Cubs have trained in either Scottsdale, Ariz., or their current home of Mesa every spring since 1952.
They are by far the biggest draw in the Cactus League. According to Brinton, the 20 biggest crowds ever to see a spring training game in Arizona involve the Cubs.
“I’m certain the city of Mesa and the state and everyone else involved will put forth the right efforts to make sure the Cubs stay here,” Brinton said Monday during a phone interview.
The Cubs train in Fitch Park and play their games a few blocks away in HoHoKam Park, a 13,100-seat stadium. After visiting the new spring training facilities in nearby Glendale and Goodyear, Cubs chairman Crane Kennedy stated the club wants a new training facility and more seats at HoHoKam.
The team’s lease with the city of Mesa runs through 2016, but they can opt out in 2012 for $4.2million.
Tom Ricketts, who is in the process of buying the Cubs, said he would be interested in moving the Cubs out of Arizona to Sarasota.
If so, that would reverse the trend of major league teams fleeing Florida for the Arizona desert.
Nick Gandy, director of communications for the Florida Sports Foundation, said there isn’t much of a push among legislators in Tallahassee to restock the state’s declining Grapefruit League, which has lost five teams to Arizona since 1998 and will lose a sixth when the Cincinnati Reds head west next February.
But, he added, that could change in a hurry.
“There would be an interest if that becomes more than speculation, because the governor has come out and said he supports spring training in Florida,” Gandy said.
Indeed, Gov. Charlie Crist touched on the subject in February at the Governor’s Baseball Dinner at Tropicana Field.
“These baseball teams are a major part of Florida’s economy, and a major part of our $36-billion-a-year sports industry,” Crist said. “Spring training alone generates more than $450 million a year in Florida. During historic economic times like what we now face, it is more important than ever that we support and build on successful industries like baseball.”
Having the Cubs move to Florida, be it Sarasota or another location, would give Florida the top-three spring training draws — Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox.
But the Cubs are the rainmakers in the desert, drawing fans from the midwest to Mesa for home games and fans to stadiums in Tempe, Tucson, Surprise, Glendale and Phoenix, averaging nearly 9,000 fans — 8,998 to be exact — for road games.
That means teams like the Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s love it when the Cubs come to town.
Knowing the drawing power of the Cubs, Brinton said they wouldn’t be allowed to leave the state without a fight.
“The Cubs are the elite,” Brinton said. “Would there be extra pressure to keep them? I would say so.”
Money will be the issue.
Whichever city that wins the Cubs Spring Training Sweepstakes will have the bulk of the tab.
Sarasota was willing to pay $71 million for the Boston Red Sox, but the Red Sox decided to remain in Fort Myers after the City of Fort Myers came up with close to $90 million for a new stadium.
State legislators in both Florida and Arizona have made funds available to cities trying to keep or attract a major league team. But, Brinton pointed out, those funds in both states are almost tapped out.
The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority has $8.2 million for the city of Mesa to use on its spring training sites. But that money won’t be available until 2020.
“It doesn’t seem that the state has the money,” Brinton said. “But this is the Cubs.”