With one of the longest exhibition seasons in recent times, Major League Baseball's spring training continues in 15 locations across Florida. Due to the waging of the World Baseball Classic, not only did camp commence early, but additional Grapefruit League games were scheduled to ensure that missing players still received plentiful action with their regular teams.
While the seven week session undoubtedly has northern fans craving baseball at a greater level, residents of the Sunshine State have been blessed by extended excitement. Though records will become immaterial once Opening Day arrives, teams use the spring to build momentum, just as individual players compete frantically in position battles.
Although it is comforting to think sentimentally about this special time on the baseball calendar, it must be noted that spring training has become big business. While revenues do not match the regular season, clubs undoubtedly depend on these games to pad the coffers. Though lawn chairs and blankets still have a role in spring baseball, high priced box seats have become the norm, with some Atlanta Braves tickets, who train near Orlando, even shockingly exceeding $50.
In some cities, baseball fans are beginning to protest. Through nearly four weeks of games, attendance both in Florida and in Arizona's Cactus League has fallen 14% from last year's numbers. While night and weekend games still tend to pack the house, split-squad and weekday contests have witnessed significant patches of empty seats in these ideal ballparks.
Whereas 2012 saw attendance averaging 6,703 per game, spring training dates from Feb. 22 through March 12 averaged 5,789 fans. Not only has a cooler March assisted in keeping the numbers down, but it is believed that the early start did not help, since the majority of vacationers tend to arrive later in the season.
Despite the dip in attendance, and the necessity of digging deeper into one's wallet, the quality of play remains entertaining and teams hope supporters will arrive in larger numbers as the weather warms and season nears. The Grapefruit League's top record thus far belongs to 2012's surprise team, the Baltimore Orioles. Training in a recently-renovated facility in Sarasota, the upstart O's have won 13 of their first 19 contests and appear poised to repeat last year's playoff appearance.
While Ed Smith Stadium may have become one of the state's top locations, Southwest Florida is actually blessed with five complexes along the Gulf Coast from Bradenton to Fort Myers. Each ballpark has witnessed plentiful action during the past month, drawing both out-of-state visitors and local attendees, but many games remain before the Grapefruit League concludes on Saturday, March 30.
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