Strike May Put Chill On Spring Training

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The lure of Baseball City is, well, baseball. And there lies the potential marketing problem for that Florida town, as well as 23 others in the Sunshine State and Arizona that host Major League Baseball teams during spring training.

Spring training brings in hundreds of millions of dollars from fans who come to bask in the sun and the glow of their favorite baseball stars. But with no end in sight to the baseball strike, the league plans to start the season with replacement players.

The $600 million question is will these players attract as many tourists? The consensus seems to be that season ticket sales at the ballparks are strong, meaning many people are ready to travel. But most tickets are sold for single games, and the outlook there is unclear.

In general, the teams and local businesses are sitting tight. Local businessmen are hoping that even without major leaguers, warm weather and other tourist attractions will be enough to draw winter-weary visitors. They will find out in a couple of weeks.

Grapefruit League

It's shaping up as a slow season for Florida businesses that depend on baseball. That's especially bad news in Polk County, where Lakeland hosts the Detroit Tigers, Winter Haven the Cleveland Indians and Davenport-known as "Baseball City, Fla."-the Kansas City Royals. Spring training brought $45 million into the county last year.

"People may be waiting just to see what happens with spring training," said Mark Jackson, director-sports marketing with the Polk County-Central Florida Development Council. "It is a very important variable in that formula for success."

Statewide, the Grapefruit League's 20 teams had a $305 million economic impact during six weeks in 1991, according to a study conducted that year by the state Department of Commerce. Sixty-two percent of people who attended spring training were from out of state.

Officials say they realize a replacement players-only spring training will have some effect on the economy, especially on tourism-related businesses.

"We just don't know how much," said Larry Pendleton, executive director of the Florida Sports Foundation, a division of the state Department of Commerce.

Some hoteliers have noted a drop in reservations and are expressing "a valid concern" about the season, Mr. Jackson said. Polk County officials ran a fair in Kansas City, Mo., last month to spotlight county amenities and assure residents that spring training was going to continue as usual.

Mr. Jackson's office this year is also creating guides on such non-baseball activities as golf, waterskiing and bicycling, with assistance from Harwell & Giloty, Lakeland.

Marketing efforts have been "upgraded to offset possible losses" from spring training, he said.

Cactus League

Eight major league teams generate more than $266 million for Arizona's economy annually, said Ron Pies, president of the Cactus League Baseball Association. A vibrant tourism season might offset the effects of the strike this time, but Cactus League trade has always held firm even when other sectors of tourism were in the doldrums.

"The Cactus League is more than seeing Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. It's great weather, relaxation and a tradition," Mr. Pies said. "We just hope people remember that the sun shines in Arizona in March and baseball will be played."

Nevertheless, "We are developing a leaguewide advertising campaign in conjunction with the state's Office of Sports Promotion to support single-game ticket sales," Mr. Pies said.

Margaret Walker, exec VP of the Arizona Hotel & Motel Association, said the lure of Arizona sunshine and myriad other activities is keeping her members upbeat despite the strike.

"While we hate to see this strike, it isn't having a devastating effect on our business," she said. "We are at 100% occupancy. Many properties are overbooked.

"Ironically, our members might do better this year without baseball because those visitors usually book packages in which properties offer room discounts. The hotels would get more business at rack rate if they didn't cater to the spring training customer."

For 16 years the Mezona Motor Hotel in Mesa has hosted the Chicago Cubs and its following. Even with the strike, General Manager Deidre Draper expects the pilgrimage to occur full force.

"I have had minimal cancellations, maybe four or five that I know of from people who would normally come for the major leagues," she said. "Most fans will come no matter what."

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