There is so much that is wonderful about Sarasota that is reflected when you visit Ed Smith Stadium for an Orioles game.
The spring-training season ended recently, and I can honestly say I had a smile on my face each time I went there. (As a season ticket holder, I was there 12 times and enjoyed every minute.)
Putting aside what transpired on-field (unfortunately our “Boids” have been pretty dismal for about 15 years), the feeling of stepping into a 1950s-style time-warp, experiencing the joy of seeing the contrast of green grass and red clay, hearing the crack of the bat, the hawking of beer and peanuts and the kibitzing with your pals about the teams are pretty darn wonderful.
When I attended the first game of the season, I knew no one around me. By season’s end, I had new friends. Behind me were Gene and Angie, who used to run a bar in Baltimore. Gene knows more about the team than the Sporting News. Next to me is Richard, a retired chicken farmer from southern Ohio and about the nicest guy with whom you would ever want to share a beer. Joe, the usher who works our section, is married to Brenda, who went to a rival high school of mine in Northern New Jersey. We all became great friends.
I met a lot of Red Sox fans (I always wore my Yankees jersey when the Sox came to town), and Tigers and Phillies fans as well. Sometimes during these matchups, it was difficult to tell which was the home team.
But through it all, we experienced nothing but the greatest of gentility, some good-natured ribbing and the shared experience of spring baseball at “the old ballyard,” along with the camaraderie that came with it.
Lots of kids came with grandma and grandpa, and those kids have memories they will treasure and maybe a baseball grandpa caught to put on their shelf. I rarely heard any cursing in the stands. There was an understood agreement that we were here for the fun, and you respected everyone’s space. The seniors, the kids and all in between were of like minds.
I did see lots of topless bodies, because it was hot in the sun. But they weren’t the kind of topless yahoos you may see at other games — drunk, crude and disorderly. Nope, these were just folks topping up their Florida tan before heading north, perhaps.
Now, not to give away any secrets, but I saw quite a few of our elected officials at games, including Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, Congressman Vern Buchanan, Sherriff Tom Knight and Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell, who, by the way, can become quite vocal in her support of our team!
From a business perspective, for the 2012 Spring Training Season, the Orioles attracted 106,398 fans over their 15 homes dates, the second-largest spring attendance in their 50-year history. This included eight sellouts and their single-largest game attendance of 8,686 against my beloved Yankees!
Season-ticket subscriptions grew by more than 40% this season. The Orioles also contributed to our communities off the field with numerous charitable initiatives, including financial support for the new Miracle League Field at Longwood Park for special-needs kids and adults.
Now, there is also a quantifiable upside for our city and county from all of this. Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Jason Puckett, who leads sports initiatives for the SCVB, say the Orioles and the marketing programs built around them helped boost visits here from the mid-Atlantic region by 44% from 2009 to 2010 and 6.9% from 2010 to 2011. In 2011, more than 115,506 fans attended a game and probably spent a few bucks on meals, hotels and entertainment.
This spending would have gone elsewhere had we not attracted the Orioles here. By the way, of the approximately $606 million direct, visitor spending on tourism in 2011, about $62 million of that can be attributed to sports and sports tourism. In addition, the total economic impact from sports-related tourism totaled more than $117 million. (The city of Sarasota’s total annual budget is about $165 million!)
Keep in mind all of the other sports drawn here: Everything from beach volleyball to masters swimming (we are hosting the Pan American Masters Swimming Championship in 2013) to lawn bowling, power boat races and trap-and-skeet shooting are among the 60 events supported by the Sarasota Sports Commission annually. And the best may be yet to come with the Nathan Benderson Park rowing facility.
Projections are showing that rowing-park visitors will exceed 1.4 million and spend more than $209 million annually, generating more than $12.5 million in sales tax. This says nothing of the “shop window” effect that will be created for Sarasota by the international telecasts of the park’s many world-class events.
This all spells benefits accruing to Greater Sarasota when tax revenue is declining and cutbacks are the order of the day for our local governments. Pretty good from a one-time burrow pit to a gem.
We are blessed in Sarasota with some of the finest beaches and arts-oriented programs and facilities that can be found anywhere in the land. I’m not even going to qualify that statement by adding “for a city or county our size,” because we rival or exceed so many larger and more populous metroplexes in these areas.
We can now add “Sports Destination” to our résumé of attributes that make Sarasota about the best place on the planet to make home or come visit.
Richard Dorfman is a former District 1 Sarasota City Commission candidate. He says it is likely he will run again.