The New York Yankees reached an agreement to relocate their high Class A Florida State League franchise from Tampa to a planned new ballpark 90 minutes north in Ocala.
The move, which was first reported over the weekend by the Ocala Star Banner, would not impact spring training for the Yankees' major league team. The Yankees still have roughly 12 years remaining on a 30-year contract obligating them to maintain their spring home in Tampa at Steinbrenner Field.
The Yankees have spent several years looking for alternatives to Steinbrenner Field for their Florida State League affiliate and apparently found a match with Ocala. According to the Star Banner, details of the planned $45 million ballpark will be presented to the Ocala City Council on Tuesday. A vote on the plan has not been scheduled. Ocala mayor Kent Guinn told the newspaper that the ballpark could be funded through a half-cent sales tax over a five-year period.
Despite the agreement, the move is hardly a done deal. The deal must be approved by the city council and the sales tax would have to be voted on by local residents in a special election.
Other cities have faced similar votes recently. Last fall, Wilmington, N.C., residents rejected a proposal to fund a new ballpark for an Atlanta Braves affiliate in the Carolina League, while El Paso residents approved a measure to build a ballpark for the Padres’ Pacific Coast League franchise—which is scheduled to open next spring. After years of trying to find public funding for a new ballpark, the Charlotte Knights (International League) are set to move into a new downtown venue next season that is being funded primarily through private contributions, including a naming-rights deal with BB&T Bank.
"I think it makes a lot of sense,” Guinn told the Star Banner. “It’s a good quality-of-life-type venue.”
Guinn said the Yankees want out of Tampa because they are tired of competing for fans with the area's other professional sports team, including the Tampa Bay Rays and the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. Yet how much room there is to grow in the Florida State League is certainly a question.
FSL teams face challenges not shared by most of their minor league brethren—in particular a month of spring training games before Opening Day and unpredictable Florida weather—and traditionally struggle to fill their ballparks. The 12-team circuit averaged just 1,605 fans last season, fewest among the five Class A league, and topped the minors with 82 openings lost—games postponed or canceled, usually due to poor weather.
The Yankees finished fourth in attendance in the Florida State League last season, totaling 118,770 and averaged 1,827 fans per game. The league's top draw, the Clearwater Threshers (Phillies), totaled 172,151 and averaged 2,608 fans per game. The Daytona Cubs finished second at 146,049 and 2,518, followed by the Fort Myers Miracle (Twins) at 121,832 and 1,904.
Neither Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman nor Florida State League president Chuck Murphy immediately responded to interview requests.
In September 2010, the Yankees considered selling a stake in the team to Orlando businessman Armando Gutierrez, who promised to build a publicly-funded $47 million ballpark and a Yankees museum next to the Orange County Convention Center. That deal fell apart 10 months later when Orange County leaders determined that it would not be financially beneficial for the region.