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Fans packed the Boston Red Sox store this week at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla.
Fans packed the Boston Red Sox store this week at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla. (Globe Photo / Al Bello)

Where spring training counts

Fans' enthusiasm translates into profits for Red Sox operations in Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The special spring training socks are sold out. So are the Red Sox waste baskets with the World Series logos. As for the pastel purple Boston hats with the flamingos on the front, fans had better act fast: Those are going, too.

Here in Florida, fans pack the team's merchandise store at City of Palms Park -- visitors don't walk in, they push -- and they gather heaps of T-shirts, jackets, and hats in their arms, lest they be taken by someone else. The average fan who walks in here spends $200, the team's merchandising manager said. Some spend $1,000 or $1,500.

''We tried to set a limit, but then we spent $325, so that has gone right out the window," said Nancy Widell, who visited Fort Myers this week from Mexico, N.Y.

For the Red Sox, the Fort Myers clothing sales are only the beginning. Spring training, once a low-key and inexpensive pastime for fans, has become a small but growing profit center for the team. Revenue from the Fort Myers operation has increased 75 percent in the last three years, team executives said. The team, which lost money on spring training as recently as 2002, largely due to huge expenses for player travel and stadium maintenance, now makes a profit.

''In the old days, it was a sleepier and less sophisticated business endeavor," said Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox's chief executive. ''We've been battling that mentality with our operations down here."

Baseball teams for years have subsidized spring training, hoping they would make it up later with revenue from the regular season. But Lucchino said the Red Sox now view spring training as a business that should make money. (The New York Times Co., parent company of The Boston Globe, owns 17 percent of the Red Sox.)

In recent years, many teams have started to look at spring training as a way to extend their marketing and sales beyond the season, said Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a Miami Beach sports marketing agency. But he said the Red Sox are having more success than others because of the excitement surrounding their World Series win.

''I think they're leading the pack," he said. ''This reflects the phenomenal success they've enjoyed on the field and an aggressive ownership looking to grow a brand."

This year, the Red Sox added room for more than 550 fans to the stadium, including spots on a patch of grass on the right-field line.

The most expensive of these new seats now goes for $44 -- more than the highest-priced regular-season tickets to Philadelphia Phillies games, and nearly twice the price of the most expensive seats at some other spring training parks. Box seats at the Sox's City of Palms Park, which sold for $10 in the mid-1990s, now sell for $24 -- still far less than the $85 charged for similar regular-season seats at Fenway Park.

Once those fans get in the park, they spend some serious cash. The Red Sox put a tiki bar in right field this year, boosting concession sales, and they may put one in left field as well. They tripled the size of their merchandise store, then this year added a tent outside.

New England corporate sponsors are taking notice as well. CVS Corp., the Rhode Island-based pharmacy chain, signed a deal this year to become the ''title sponsor" of spring training, giving it the right to put its logo on banners and signs throughout the stadium. Dunkin' Donuts and Giant Glass, visible sponsors at Fenway, are now boosting their advertising at Fort Myers, too. In the last several years, the Red Sox have added 10 to 15 corporate sponsors for spring training.

The fierce loyalty of Sox fans makes the higher ticket prices stick. Many said they do not mind the expense as long as the team keeps winning during the regular season. Rick Goulding and his family of seven flew to spring training from Scituate on Friday, part of a family Christmas gift. During the Sox game against the Philadelphia Phillies this weekend, the family paid $21 a ticket for seats several rows back in left field, or about $150 in all.

That was just to get them in the door: They planned to buy some merchandise and food inside the ballpark, where bottled water costs $4.75 and peanuts cost $3.50.

Still, Goulding, a Boston College freshman, said it is well worth it.

''It's for the Sox," he said.

''Especially now that they won the World Series," his mother, Robin, agreed.

But the changes have other Sox fans arguing that the high cost of tickets and crowds have made spring training harder to enjoy.

''Spring training should be nice and relaxing, and you should be able to have a good, inexpensive time," Bob Petrelli of Weymouth, standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of customers in the Sox's merchandise store. ''That's not happening anymore."

Still, the Sox's profit from Fort Myers remains relatively small: Spring training accounts for less than 5 percent of the team's revenue, largely because tickets still are cheaper than at Fenway, the stadium is one-fourth the size, and the team plays in Fort Myers for only about one month per year. But despite the limitations, there may be more room to grow: The Sox sold out every spring training game this year, even at the higher prices, indicating that demand remains high.

After deciding several years ago that spring training could break even or make money, the Red Sox set their course methodically.

The city of Fort Myers built the ballpark, and the Red Sox managed it for years. But under a new, 15-year lease negotiated last year with Lee County, owner of the stadium, the team now pays just $310,000 a year, and leaves stadium management to the county. The Sox do not have to share a percentage of ticket sales, parking, or concessions. When the team added seats this year, Lee County paid for much of the expansion.

The county actually loses money on the lease, about $300,000 every year, because it assumes most costs for maintaining the stadium, said John Yarbrough, the county's director of parks and recreation. The county justifies the expense because it figures that the Sox bring in at least $25 million a year in tourism and other aid to the economy, he said.

For the Sox, the favorable lease gives them breathing room financially. Then, to bring in more revenue, the club recruited Fenway sponsors to expand their deals into Florida as well. Delta Air Lines, the official airline of the Red Sox, recently signed up its low-cost airline, Song, to become the official airline of spring training.

A big reason sponsors like spring training: Many of the games now are televised, helping them reach beyond the 8,500 fans in the stadium.

''The excitement down here is tremendous. I've never seen so much impact," said Dennis V. Drinkwater, chief executive of Giant Glass, who expanded his sponsorship to spring training this year.

The Sox's new grass seating area, a ''berm," or artificially raised area, may become a model for the stadium's future growth, said David W. Bower, a principal at HOK Sport + Venue + Event, Kansas City sports architects.

He said grass seating areas have become increasingly common among spring training stadiums, in part because they are cheap to build and still look good if the seats do not sell well. Fans also like them because they can recline on picnic blankets and watch the game, he said.

Despite the extra revenue, the Sox acknowledge that there is a limit to how much they can expand spring training.

The team will keep adding seats, though not huge numbers of them, said Mike Dee, the team's chief operating officer. He also said the team's primary goal is to improve conditions for the players and heighten the fans' experience.

''You want to have seats but not disturb the ecosystem of the park and what makes it special," he said. ''I wouldn't say we're done, but I'd say we're in the eighth inning."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at

Getting more from spring training

Tickets: The Red Sox have increased ticket prices -- the most expensive seats now sell for $44 -- and added between 550 and 600 seats to the stadium, including some in a grassy area, as well as more standing room.

Sponsors: The Red Sox have persuaded New England corporate sponsors to advertise at spring training. One lure: Consumer chains such as CVS Corp. and Dunkin' Donuts can target both New Englanders and Florida residents. The team has added about 10 to 15 spring training sponsors in the last several years.

Merchandise: The Red Sox tripled the size of their merchandise store last year and, when that was not enough, they added a tent this year outside. They also rolled out a line of exclusive spring training merchandise in pastel colors.

Concessions: The Red Sox added a tiki bar in right field and have plans to add another on the other side. They also are increasing the number of places where people can buy food.

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