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Orioles' Spring Training In Sarasota Offers A Warm Welcome

February 16, 2015
There's an old saying in business that sometimes the best deals are the ones that never get made.

When the Orioles failed to secure a long-term agreement in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., more than five years ago to keep their spring training home in South Florida, it could have been a blow for the team's plans for preseason stability as well as unsettling for player development.

But that apparent setback put the Birds on an odyssey through the Sunshine State that eventually led to Sarasota, Fla., on Florida's Gulf Coast. In the process, the team found a willing partner in a symbiotic relationship that combined marketing acumen with civic commitment.

Issue 206: Orioles Spring Training In Sarasota: Ed Smith Stadium
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
"We did the deal [with Sarasota in 2009] because the [Orioles] ownership felt it was such a good community and such a good fit for the fan base, and it was an equally good fit for the player development function," said Orioles executive vice president John Angelos, who headed the long search for a permanent spring training home.

However, the only reason the Orioles were even talking with Sarasota in 2009 was because an agreement with Fort Lauderdale fell apart. 

There was also still the matter of selling the Orioles to Sarasota's political leaders, even though the team had its supporters there. Local government would have to find some of the money to refurbish Sarasota's aging Ed Smith Stadium.

"We told them that we had a better construct to promote their community to our community," said Angelos, son of Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

There was certainly the economic impact to Sarasota that's in the tens of millions of dollars. The Orioles estimated that to be more than $35 million a year, using state figures. A 2009 report by the Florida Sports Foundation said the average economic impact per team statewide was even higher. But Angelos was offering Sarasota even more value.

"Something else we knew we could do was bring our marketing platform to bear in ways we knew that other teams didn't do or haven't done," Angelos said, "because they didn't have the things that we have at our disposal, or they weren't willing to put it together."

Fort Lauderdale plan fizzles

The Orioles are about to start their sixth spring training in Sarasota when pitchers and catchers report Feb. 19, and position players follow five days later. The first spring training game is March 3 against Detroit on the road, and the Orioles play their first game in Sarasota the next day, also against the Tigers.

For lucky fans able to escape the chill of late winter and get to Sarasota, hearing the crack of the bat while basking in the west Florida sun will be a welcome overture to what Orioles followers hope will be a fourth straight winning season.

But while the living may be easy in Sarasota's newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium, getting the Orioles to their current spring training home was no breeze.

It started, curiously, with failure -- the failure to seal a deal to keep the Orioles on the state's East Coast in Fort Lauderdale.

The O's had held spring training in Fort Lauderdale beginning in 1996, jumping there after the Yankees left for Tampa Bay, Fla. Oriole ownership, led by Peter Angelos, inherited Fort Lauderdale as a spring camp and seemed willing to stay there indefinitely. 

Old Fort Lauderdale Stadium needed a lot of work, and other improvements were needed. But the team and the local governments had cobbled together the financing needed to move forward. After renewing a series of short-term contracts with Fort Lauderdale, the Birds were poised to make a 30-year commitment to stay there when the rug was pulled from underneath the team and their local government hosts.

The land where the Fort Lauderdale spring training facility was located was controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA had been renting the land to the city of Fort Lauderdale that, in turn, had the Orioles as tenants. When the FAA asked for a huge hike in rent from Fort Lauderdale, the carefully assembled plan began to crumble.

Realizing the Fort Lauderdale deal could be derailed, John Angelos began working on what he called "Plan B" to make sure the team wasn't left in the lurch.

"We were upfront with everyone there that we needed to consider contingencies," Angelos said.

Issue 206: Orioles Spring Training In Sarasota: John Angelos, Louis Angelos, Lou Kousouris
John Angelos, Louis Angelos, Lou Kousouris (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Baltimore Orioles)
John Webb, now the president of the Florida Sports Foundation and was a Broward County tourism executive when the Orioles were trying to hammer out a deal in Fort Lauderdale, concurred that the Orioles played fair all along.

"We certainly hoped that they were not successful in finding a new place, but I understood what they needed to do, and they were classy about it," Webb said.

John Angelos' Plan B involved discussing spring training options with a number of Florida locations, including Palm Beach County and Vero Beach. Early talks with Sarasota seemed to be going nowhere, in part because some politicians there thought they had a shot to attract the Boston Red Sox, considered a more glamorous alternative in 2009.

Arizona lure hits Grapefruit League

Meanwhile, there were many in Florida political, business and civic circles who wanted to make sure the Orioles stayed in the Grapefruit League.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Arizona's Cactus League has been wildly successful in luring major league teams that had previously spent their springs in Florida.

Since 2003, five teams -- Kansas City, Texas, Cleveland, the Los Angeles Dodgers and, most recently, Cincinnati -- left Florida for attractive deals in the Southwest. 

Arizona was able to attract so many teams by dangling publicly financed new stadiums, some of them home to more than one team, and all clustered in the Greater Phoenix area to make game travel easier. Now, there are 15 teams each in Florida and Arizona.

"Arizona did it right -- putting up these huge stadiums that could host two teams," said Wendy Bitner, who, along with her late husband Dave Bitner, represented Florida's Grapefruit League as lobbyists and successfully pushed for state funding to keep spring training camps in Florida.

Dave Bitner, who grew up in Hagerstown, Md., also helped introduce Angelos to Sarasota County officials.

That Sarasota was even a consideration for the Orioles was the result of Arizona's siren song.

The Florida Gulf Coast city, situated about an hour south of Tampa Bay, had been spring home to the Orioles from 1989-1991, but it was the Chicago White Sox who were Sarasota's main spring team for more than three decades from 1960-1997. However, the White Sox took off for Arizona, first training in Tucson, Ariz., and now in Glendale.

The Reds replaced the White Sox in Sarasota, and the city perhaps got complacent thinking Cincinnati would never move. But after efforts to raises taxes failed in Sarasota to redo Ed Smith Stadium, the Reds lost patience, and they also bolted for Arizona, the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear, in 2010.

"Those were tough times for Sarasota," said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, the organization responsible for promoting tourism there.

The faltering housing market, which pummeled much of Florida from 2007-2012, hit the Sarasota area especially hard.

"Sarasota is a baseball town," Haley said. "And it needed a win badly."

Getting the deal on track

At the same time the Orioles were looking for a viable spring home after the disappointment in Fort Lauderdale, the Red Sox were considering making a move from Fort Myers, Fla., and began a Sarasota flirtation. Whether Boston was serious about Sarasota or just using the city as leverage for a better deal in Fort Myers is conjecture, but in the end, Boston got a new ballpark, JetBlue Park at Fenway South, that kept them in Lee County.

In November 2008, John Angelos and Haley, the Sarasota County tourism executive, met for breakfast in what would turn out to be a watershed meeting for Sarasota and the Orioles. From that moment on, there was a renewed effort to get the Orioles to Sarasota.

In June 2009, there was positive movement in a joint meeting of Sarasota County and Sarasota city commissioners. Haley said the business community, especially the local Chamber of Commerce, got behind the Orioles.

Angelos' pitch was straightforward in offering the area the best deal possible.

"My approach was to put everything on the table and get it out there," he said. "There's no reason to play poker with anyone, and I didn't want negative stories with what we should have done or didn't do." 

Angelos' message to Sarasota leaders was direct.

"We're not going to just play here and give you ads in the program at Camden Yards," he told them. "We're going to promote year-round that this is our home away from home, that this is our sister city or sister region, and while we want people to come here and see our games, we also think it's a great place to be a corporate citizen and a great place for Orioles fans to visit, to vacation and even to retire." 

In July 2009, the Sarasota County and city commissions gave final approvals, and it was announced the O's would begin spring training in Sarasota in 2010. Work on Ed Smith Stadium would begin after that 2010 spring season.

Issue 206: Orioles Spring Training In Sarasota: Ed Smith Stadium (offices)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
The 30-year lease agreement the Orioles signed with Sarasota called for more than $31 million in renovations to Ed Smith Stadium.

The completely overhauled stadium complex has turned out to be a perfect spring training enclave with a façade vaguely reminiscent of Ebbets Field, albeit with a Florida flair, and seating for 8,500. Beyond centerfield is a cluster of four practice fields.

When the Orioles break camp, the stadium gets more use with college-aged and elite high school teams playing there. There are also music concerts, and Angelos said he wants to bring in events, such as beer and food fests, so that the local community feels the stadium belongs to it and isn't the private preserve of a major league team.

Shannon Staub, who was chairwoman of the Sarasota County commissioners during talks with the Orioles, said a big part of the baseball organization's appeal was its commitment to being part of the Sarasota community.

"This is a very philanthropic community, and we value a business that wants to be part of the community," she said. "The Orioles, being owned by the Angelos family, felt like it was more of a family operation than some other baseball organizations that felt more corporate."

It was important that the hotel industry got behind the effort because some of the funding for the stadium renovation came from a new hotel tax. Other funding came from a state grant the Orioles had secured in the hopes of doing the long-term deal in Fort Lauderdale. 

MASN the trump card

Critical to getting Sarasota's political leaders and business community on board was the unique marketing package John Angelos had brought to the table.

A linchpin was the MASN television channels that are majority owned by the Orioles, with the Washington Nationals holding a minority interest.

What the Orioles could offer Sarasota, a region that depends on tourists and retirement- and second-home purchasers, was an opportunity to reach a valuable audience.

"Without the opportunities from the Orioles and MASN, we could never afford to advertise Sarasota to the Baltimore-Washington market. That's an expensive market," said Haley, the head of the Sarasota County visitors group. "The partnership with the Orioles has driven traffic to our website, visitation has grown and it's not just for the time that there's spring training. It's the rest of the year as well."

In addition to television spots on the MASN channels and radio ads during games, Sarasota gets exposure through events such as FanFest held in January or February at the Baltimore Convention Center that draws an estimated 15,000 fans. The public may be there to connect with players and coaches and collect autographs, but it's the perfect opportunity to whet the appetite of baseball-starved fans with the prospect of a trip to spring training.

"When we first started going to FanFest, the reaction we were getting from fans was, ‘Woe, is me … we're used to Fort Lauderdale,'" Haley said. "Now, we get fans volunteering what their favorite restaurants are in Sarasota and looking for suggestions on new places."

In just about every conceivable way, the Orioles organization has helped get more visibility for its sister city in Florida.

During the season, there's a "Visit Sarasota County Day" at Oriole Park. In early April, the Visit Sarasota County organization hosts the annual Greater Baltimore Committee's Orioles luncheon to get the Florida city's message in front of influential attendees.

Also during the baseball season, the Sarasota tourism folks get use of luxury suites at Camden Yards and Nationals Park to host and target the Baltimore-area travel industry. 

In terms of what marketing folks call "impressions," the Orioles deliver an array of opportunities for Sarasota. A far-reaching one is signage touting Sarasota behind home plate at Oriole Park that reaches not just the Baltimore region, but also viewers in other East Coast markets, such as New York.

Issue 206: Orioles Spring Training In Sarasota: Field
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
Perhaps some of the best marketing opportunities for Sarasota are simply the spring training games that are broadcast from Ed Smith Stadium. Seven Orioles spring training games will be broadcasted live on MASN this year, with four of those being re-broadcasted later. There's perhaps nothing quite as enticing for a baseball fan than to be sitting home with near-freezing temperatures outside and watching the home team playing the summer game with folks in the stands in short sleeves.

Sarasota tourism officials calculate that the marketing opportunities provided by the Orioles amount to about $1 million, and visitation statistics seem to back up the efficacy of all the promotion.

Visitors to Sarasota from Maryland more than doubled from 5,000 in 2009 to 10,300 in 2012, according to Visit Sarasota County. 

The growth has continued in more recent years.

In the first three months of 2014 -- spring training time -- overall visitation to Sarasota County grew 4.3 percent from 2013, a jump of more than 11,000 visitors. Expenditures from visitors grew even more, 8.8 percent. And average attendance at Ed Smith Stadium was 7,454 per game, just about 88 percent of capacity. This year, there are 16 home spring training games.

O's fans trek southward

A couple of those Baltimore-area visitors are Hal Hackerman and Bill Jones, two friends who travel to Sarasota every year with a larger group to follow the Orioles. In fact, both Hackerman and Jones have been making spring training pilgrimages for more than 30 years, so they have a breadth of experience.

"Sarasota is very family-oriented," said Hackerman, a CPA from Baltimore who will be making his annual trip in March again this year. "The stadium is great. There's easy parking. There are a lot of good places to eat."

A favorite spot for stone crabs, Hackerman said, is Moore's on Longboat Key.

"And there are a lot of places to stay. Some of the guys who go with us want something less expensive, so they stay out toward the airport. But when we started, we stayed at a Hyatt, and we've been at the Ritz-Carlton. There's a Holiday Inn at Lido Beach. So there's a good range."

Jones, who does development, business and government relations consulting and lives in Towson, Md., is just the type of visitor the Sarasota folks were hoping to attract when they landed the Orioles. Not only is Jones a regular yearly visitor, he's also considering buying a second home there.

"I think my wife and I will take a look," he said. "They have some of the best beaches in the world, good restaurants, there's a good amount of cultural activity, including the performing arts, and, of course, the fact that the Orioles have their spring training home there is a big plus."

For fans like Hackerman and Jones, Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium is a paradise that gets them closer to the game than they could ever hope for at a major league park.

"You can actually hear the players' and the coaches' chatter," Hackerman said. 

Issue 206: Orioles Spring Training In Sarasota (pennants)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
For the Orioles organization, the location is perfect. 

Four of the five American League East teams make their spring homes on Florida's West Coast, with the New York Yankees in Tampa Bay, the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., and the Red Sox in Fort Myers. Close to the Orioles and Sarasota are the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., and the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla.

That's also good for fans like Hackerman and Jones because they can drive to see the Orioles at away spring training games.

Had things gone more smoothly for the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale six or seven years ago, they would have found themselves isolated in South Florida, with the nearest teams being the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, more than 60 miles to the north in Jupiter.

"When you have eight or nine clubs around you, and all of the AL East, it really solved lot of the problems that we had and were increasingly having in Fort Lauderdale because teams were leaving, and no one was coming back," John Angelos said.

So, while events beyond the Orioles' control -- such as the FAA insisting on much more rent in Fort Lauderdale for that spring training site and Arizona luring more teams there -- were buffeting the Birds, the end result was a winner.

"The irony is that we wound up in a place that served our interests better than even if things had gone more our way on the East Coast," Angelos said.

Issue 206: February 2015