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Arizona dreamin'

Cactus League lures teams away from sleepy Florida

Posted: Thursday February 22, 2007 12:22PM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 2:17PM
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The Royals and Rangers moved from Florida to Surprise, Ariz., where a brand new, publicly funded stadium awaited them.
The Royals and Rangers moved from Florida to Surprise, Ariz., where a brand new, publicly funded stadium awaited them.
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By Joe Lemire, SI.com

When Mark Coronado stands on the Surprise Recreation Campus, 20 miles northwest of Phoenix, and looks north to the Bell Road corridor, he sees 10 new restaurants, the construction of another hotel and the development of an entertainment complex.

Behind Coronado sits the 10,714-seat Surprise Stadium and 12 full practice fields that have served as the spring training home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals since 2003 -- alongside other amenities such as a 10,000-square foot aquatics center, a five-acre lake and a $5.5 million regional library.

Surprise is experiencing a major boon, in no small part because it hosts two of the three big league teams that have made the move to Arizona's Cactus League (and away from Florida's Grapefruit circuit) in recent years. The population of Surprise has exploded exponentially in the past decade, jumping from 15,000 in 1997 to slightly more than 100,000, and baseball has served as a significant catalyst.

"It's not just the increased demand and creation of jobs but the credibility on the business and corporate side [that baseball brings]," said Coronado, the city's community and recreation services director. "That's huge for a small city. The recognition is priceless."

Arizona is getting an increasingly larger piece of the spring training pie. The White Sox moved to Tucson in 1998, the Rangers and Royals went to Surprise five years later and the Dodgers and Indians have announced plans to move to the Southwest by 2009. For decades, the spring training landscape had been dominated by Florida, which boasted twice as many teams (20) as Arizona (10) until the exodus of the Rangers and Royals. But after Los Angeles and Cleveland move, the two states will be nearly even, with Florida leading just 16-14.

"You're talking about the notion of brand. Brand constitutes value," said Fritz Polite, a University of Tennessee sports management professor who has studied the economics of spring training. "Have you ever been to Lakeland, Fla.? There's not much there. You blink and you miss it. But a lot of people will come because the Tigers are there."

The benefits of Surprise's economic plan, though centered on baseball, extend deeper into the community, with the recreation campus drawing 1.3 million visitors last year.

"This is a quality of life enhancement," Coronado said. "It's a wellness opportunity. You can't put a dollar value on that."

Of course, the architects, construction crews and developers do put a dollar value on facilities, but finding capital to build for baseball hasn't been a significant political obstacle in Arizona. For the $48.3 complex in Surprise, the city received $32 million from the state, and it was built at no cost to the teams. Similar plans are in place for the Indians in Goodyear and the Dodgers in Glendale, where a two-team facility is being erected. (The White Sox are expected to join the Dodgers after their lease in Tucson runs out at the end of the 2012 spring.)

The Arizona Office of Tourism estimates that tourism creates 168,000 jobs in the state with the Cactus League making a nearly $202 million economic impact in 2003, the last year it was studied. Roughly 48 percent of those dollars came from out of state. Across the continent, the Florida Sports Foundation reports that the Grapefruit contributes $450 million to its economy, with each of the currently 18 teams responsible for an average impact of $25 million.

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