The future of baseball spring training in Lee County

Reporter: Peter Fleischer Writer: Nicholas Karsen
Published: Updated:
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The iconic phrase “Take me out to the ballgame” has lost meaning as baseball attendance and television ratings have noticeably dropped in recent years.

With passion waning for the American tradition, how will it financially impact spring training in Southwest Florida?

Jessamy Finet and Erin Nanstad have visited Lee County from Boston for 25 years to watch the spring training.

“We come for baseball, we enjoy it,” said Finet. “We enjoy the weather, we get our drink on, we go see people that we’ve met for the past 20 years.”

Unfortunately, baseball in Lee County hasn’t had a clean offseason in five years.

The events of COVID-19, Hurricane Ian, and a major league baseball lockout have thrown a curveball at the spring training experience, impacting Lee County in the process.

Attendees at Jet Blue Park. Credit: WINK

Jeff Mielke, Executive Director of Sports Development, says that despite the recent obstacles, the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, the two teams that call Lee County home, are still receiving first-place support.

“It’s a testament to these strong fan bases that they both represent because they’re always in the top two to five of the Grapefruit League in attendance,” said Mielke.

Data gathered from Major League Baseball shows that spring training attendance has decreased across the last 10 years, with the Red Sox and Twins seeing dips in Lee County.

Despite the statistics, Lee County Officials claim that the tourism impact and the money generated from the two fanbases are financially successful.

The latest economic study of 2018 reveals nearly $69 million in revenue generated by spring training.

“They’ve been here a long time, the fans love our destination, they’re buying second homes here, there are a lot of folks who have annualized this occurrence, and it’s ingrained in their family experiences,” said Mielke.

Finet and Nanstad have had first-hand experience as their 4-day trip 25 years ago has grown into a 16-day vacation.

While spring training has sustained a significant presence in Lee County, the same cannot be said for Charlotte County.

The Tampa Bay Rays is the only other team that holds its spring training in Southwest Florida; however, attendance has not reached more than 5,000 people since 2016.

The most recent financial impact report from Charlotte County in 2022 shows the team generated almost $7 million.

The interconnectedness between Lee County and the professional baseball teams has stemmed from the early 1990s.

Mielke has pointed out the deep-rooted relationship between scholarships provided by the teams and local schools, with six-figure donations made after the impacts of Hurricane Ian.

“They’re not just here in February and March. They have a presence in our community. They’re doing good things beyond the baseball field,” said Mielke. “The public and private partnerships between the three of us are. I don’t know of another destination that has that.”

The Twins lease in Lee County runs through 2042, and the Red Sox’s lease is set to end in 2038.

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