SARASOTA, Fla. — Officials trying to prop up the sagging economy here are convinced they have found a remedy: annexing a piece of Red Sox Nation, NYT.
Boston’s on-the-field success in recent years has made the organization a darling among fans and marketers. And the emerging power of the Red Sox name, fueled by frenetic fans who travel widely to see their team play, has created a level of interest from Sarasota sometimes seen from cities hoping to land the Olympics. Officials here are trying with all their civic might to poach the club’s spring training operation from Fort Myers, where it has been since 1993.
There have been friendly calls from local politicians to team executives, a pledge to build a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park, and discussions about both a public land purchase and an increase in the tourism tax to pay for the stadium and improvements to an existing minor league complex. A grass-roots organization called “Citizens for Sox” has even formed to help in the effort.
The officials here (SARASOTA) say the team would attract more tourists and businesses than any other major league franchise. They hope the relocation would help lift real estate prices, increase the number of flights to and from Boston and boost construction. “This is not just about baseball” said Joe Barbetta, a Sarasota County commissioner. “It is about the Red Sox brand.”
Kelly Kirschner, the commissioner from the city of Sarasota who has teamed with Barbetta to try to attract the team, added from across the table, “We have never seen 4,000 people get together about anything, let alone a baseball team.”
The Red Sox are among a handful of teams with the flexibility to leave their spring training cities because they hold opt-out clauses in their current deals. The club’s existing agreement with Lee County allows the team to leave Fort Myers after 2009 spring training if it pays $1 million. After that, the amount decreases by $100,000 a year until the agreement expires in 2019.
On Tuesday, Sarasota County voted to buy 1.2 acres in downtown Sarasota for $4.8 million. The plan calls for a 10,000-seat stadium next to the site of Payne Park, where the Red Sox held spring training from 1933 to 1942 and from 1946 to 1958. Officials in Sarasota have been in discussions with the Red Sox for several weeks, and they expect to make their formal offer by mid-September.
Sarasota finds itself searching for a team because the Cincinnati Reds decided last year to leave for Goodyear, Ariz. To find a new team, officials began studying which clubs could relocate and soon fell in love with the idea of landing the Red Sox. “Certainly it’s because their star has never been brighter,” said John Yarbrough, the official in Fort Myers who is in charge of the effort to keep the team. “There is no team, except for maybe the Yankees, that has the following they have right now. It’s a sign of the slow economy that more municipalities haven’t come out pushing for them.”
The Red Sox have done what seemed nearly impossible five years ago. In 2004, they rallied from three games down to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. Then they won another title last season.
Sarasota, which was home to a Class A affiliate of the Red Sox from 1994 to 2004, appears to be the only city beyond Fort Myers interested in taking them, although Disney officials are also making a quiet push. Disney World is already home to the Atlanta Braves during spring training at its Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. The Red Sox’ chief operating officer, Mike Dee, toured the center in July.
But the interest from Sarasota appears to be the strongest, and its officials argue that the benefits of attracting the team would exceed the economic activity associated with a schedule of roughly 17 spring training games. Many of Sarasota County’s approximately 350,000 residents, like those elsewhere on Florida’s Gulf Coast, are retirees from the Midwest (THERE IS A VERY LARGE CONTINGENT FROM THE NEW YORK-NEW ENGLAND AREA).
But the officials say the Red Sox could attract more people from the Northeast. “If the Red Sox come, it would bring in direct flights from Boston, and it would attract people from New York to New Hampshire,” Barbetta said, referring to his hope that those people might decide to relocate to or retire in Sarasota.
A consultant’s study for Sarasota showed that the Red Sox would generate $46.5 million a year in economic activity, nearly double the amount associated with the Reds. And in the 2007 edition of “Turnkey Team Brand Index,” a study that ranks the brand strength of 122 teams in Major League Baseball, the N.F.L., the N.B.A. and the N.H.L., the Red Sox finished fifth in fan loyalty among all major franchises and first in baseball. (The New York Times Company owns 17 percent of New England Sports Ventures, the parent company of the Red Sox. the New York Times owns the Sarasota Herald Tribune).
“We asked fans how much a team is a part of their daily routine, to what degree do they support a team, how often do they watch them on TV and how much they go to games,” said Len Perna, the president of Turnkey Sports and Entertainment. “There is no doubt that their performance on the field over the past few years has had an impact on their brand, but there are other teams that have won and don’t have the same glow.”