IN THE BALLPARK
by Joe Mock
All rights reserved
According to the research, the spring home of the Baltimore Orioles, Ed Smith Stadium, is the most-liked ballpark used for spring-training games. As part of an assignment for the USA TODAY Spring Training Preview, I interviewed the Executive Vice President of the Orioles, John Angelos. Here is the transcript of that conversation:
WHEN THE ORIOLES WERE CONSIDERING MOVING THEIR SPRING OPERATIONS AWAY FROM FORT LAUDERDALE, WHAT WERE YOU LOOKING TO ACCOMPLISH?
We were in Fort Lauderdale starting in 1995 to 2009. The first thing we did was develop a concept where we would bring to the table all of our marketing platforms and multi-media assets, and we would present not just an opportunity to have a season of spring training and a year-round presence of a team, but we would try to drive a “sister” regional approach where the Orioles would try to drive as much tourism as conceivably possible from our home market to our year-round training city in Florida.
That was the idea that we first tried to do with Fort Lauderdale, and it was approved by the Broward County Commission and the State of Florida, but then because of some esoteric issues that the City of Fort Lauderdale had with the Federal Aviation Administration because of the (nearby) executive airport, the City was having problems fulfilling the lease agreement. They loved the concept (and) the Broward County Tourism people loved it. The County Commissioners approved it. The State of Florida committed to the funding, but the City couldn’t do it.
So we amicably said that we should look around at some other options.
When the Reds opted to go to Arizona, that opened the door (in Sarasota). I spent a lot of time in 2008 and 2009 going through that same process that we’d gone through with Broward County with Sarasota County. We came in with the same proposal for a sister regional-tourism-promotion machine, as well as a state-of-the-art ballpark.
I testified in both Tallahassee and Sarasota that we thought our plan would generate $35 to $40 million in annual economic impact (for Sarasota). I’m happy to say that eight years later, we’ve reached over $90 million in annual economic impact. So I can say that we dramatically under-promised and over-delivered. I think in the eight years we’ve been there, we’re coming up on $400 or $450 million. That’s just a dramatic over-delivery of the impact.
We recently were given some statistics on airport travelers. The Mid-Atlantic has now surpassed all other areas in sending travelers to their airport (Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport), and they attribute that to the Orioles.
And that’s a really good story for the Orioles and a good story for baseball, to show that baseball is a sport that can really move people to become tourists and follow that pilgrimage to spring training and year-round baseball. We’re happy that the economic-impact numbers show that. The County put in $24 million, the state put in roughly eight (million) and we put in some money, too, but the return on investment on that level of public money is totally off the charts, so we’re happy about that.
It was a long process, but we’re happy that the fans come, and all of our players and coaches love being in Sarasota because it’s a great town. And a number of our current and former players have purchased homes in that area, and that’s not even in the economic impact numbers. So it’s really a great success story.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE REBUILDING OF THE STADIUM IN SARASOTA. I KNOW JANET MARIE SMITH WAS INVOLVED, AS WAS DAVID SCHWARZ. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT?
Obviously, the stadium had been there for awhile, and several teams had moved out. David Schwarz and a number of other competing architects submitted proposals. My brother Louis and I spent a lot of time with David and his team. As his buildings reflect, he is an incredibly creative person, and he’s very diverse in his creativity. He’s built spring-training venues, Major League venues, symphony (venues), arts and cultural facilities, plus sophisticated office buildings. We just thought that he was a really good fit, not only for the Orioles, but also for Sarasota, since it’s a place that is pretty special. So we spent time in Miami Beach where he had a house. We wanted to give him the freedom to come up with a novel approach.
Boy, when you look at the before and after pictures (of Ed Smith Stadium), what he came up with is amazing. He came up with the idea to wrap the double façade around that old stadium structure, and to go with what he called “Florida Picturesque,” kind of a turn-of-the-century look with Spanish influence.
Actually, halfway through the process, we got back together with him and said that we don’t know if we devoted enough budget for this because what you’ve done here is great. Let’s redesign some things and give you some more money (to complete your ideas).
For instance, the original design was going to end at the edge of the bowl of the old stadium structure on each side. By committing some more money to him, we were able to complete the whole left field (area). We had walked around The Clevelander and some places in South Beach, so we said “We need some more palm trees, and let’s finish all that great architecture and the terra cotta roofing, and that color scheme you have.” And he did that, and now I think that left-field view is pretty much the signature of the park.
So all the credit should go to him. We had been in the business for a while, 25 years or so, so we had our own ideas, but it was really David who was the driver, and he deserves tremendous credit. That’s why we keep talking to him about things we can do together.
There were really two architects. David was the design architect and Gary Hoyt’s firm was the execution architect, so we give them all the credit. Janet (Marie Smith) coordinated the nuts and bolts of it. Everybody played a role and pitched in.
I’m happy the response has been good and it sounds like your data confirms (that).
I think the Reds were doing about 60 or 65,000 (attendance) when they left, and now we’re doing about 125 (thousand) or so. I know a lot of clubs draw well, but I think that’s a pretty good increase.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE FEATURES OF ED SMITH OR THE WAY THE GAMEDAY PRESENTATION IS DONE THAT PROMPTED THE FANS TO RANK YOUR BALLPARK AT THE TOP?
I think that the two concourses adds a certain aspect to it. It doesn’t feel like a typical stadium because it gives it a certain openness. The left-field views are pretty good.
And we’re going to continue at some point with those (changes), adding a boardwalk to give a view out back to the practice fields as well as back into the stadium itself.
But it is hard to believe that this being a renovation and the budget we had to work with, that (Ed Smith) has affected people like it has. I think part of it is that Sarasota is a really great place to be at that time of year, and its beach is always rated at the top.
IT’S INTERESTING THAT WHEN REVIEWTRACKERS DID RESEARCH LAST YEAR ON WHAT ONLINE REVIEWS HAD TO SAY ABOUT THE 30 MAJOR LEAGUE PARKS, CAMDEN YARDS CAME IN #1. THE ORIOLES ARE OBVIOUSLY DOING THINGS RIGHT.
Yeah, last year we were voted #1 and so now it’s really cool to be #1 in both venues.
WHAT COMMENTS DO YOU GET FROM FANS IN THE MID-ATLANTIC WHO GO TO ED SMITH FOR SPRING-TRAINING GAMES?
Well, for one thing, the quality of the food and beverage is pretty good. We take control of that directly and specify what we want. We really upgraded it dramatically, and when we designed the ballpark, we over-built the kitchen facilities. At the old stadium, the wait times were too long, and the food quality and prices weren’t what they could’ve been. So we really invested in that. That’s one thing that you can really control, and people love food and beverage, and that’s a big part of the fan’s experience. We have a good person who’s been in charge of food at Fort Lauderdale, in Sarasota and at Camden Yards, so we have a lot of continuity there.
We’ve also played better since we moved to Sarasota (laughs). That also leaves people with a good taste in their mouths about Oriole baseball.
I also think the area has improved since I first went there in 2008. The stadium is part of that, that the Orioles helped keep the unbroken tradition of baseball in Sarasota. That’s part of the good feeling there.
And we do a lot of year-round things there. In fact, this year we’re going to run our Gulf Coast League games out of the stadium instead of the back fields. And we do a ton of community programs on our fields and at our Minor League facility up the road at Twin Lakes. Approximately 25,000 kids use our facilities for Little League, youth and college tournaments, and all forms of events. We also have an Arts In The Park program (where) we host the Sarasota Orchestra a couple of nights a year. We have jazz. We’ve invited the opera.
We’re doing a really cool event on March 1st called Nashville Comes to the Ballpark, where we bring in musicians from Nashville’s Music Row and raise a lot of money for local charities. And then at the end of the (spring) season, we’re going to have a send-off charity concert with a big Country act.
Sarasota loves the arts and culture. That’s what we focus on, arts education and literacy and kids programs. We actually go into all of the (local) middle schools and we have a health and fitness program that is taught in the phys-ed classes – how to exercise, what to eat, what to avoid, and we get our players to come in and participate.
So I think we’re synergistic everywhere, and the beautiful stadium allows us to match up really well with the community of Sarasota. It’s been a good eight years.
ARE THERE ANY CHANGES PLANNED FOR THE STADIUM?
I think the next thing we’ll probably do is build the palm-tree area and boardwalk around the outfield, and add a ‘player garden’ area where we can hold events and where the players can interact with the fans. It would back up to the clubhouse building. I would hope we could do this in the next three years.
IT’S OBVIOUS THAT SINCE THE REBUILT BALLPARK OPENED IN 2011, FANS HAVE LOVED WHAT YOU DID WITH THE PLACE.
I’m really happy that we scored so well. That’s a really gratifying thing. And I think our return on investment to the taxpayers has been number one, so I know it’s worked well for Sarasota, too.
Part 2 is our conversation with Janet Marie Smith.