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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 3, 2017 2 years ago

Play ball

Baseball teams have been swapping spring training cites with greater frequency across Florida in recent years. But not in Lakeland.
by: Elizabeth Morrisey Contributing Writer

The Detroit Tigers recently agreed to continue holding its spring training in Lakeland for another 20 years, and having a newly renovated stadium makes the deal that much sweeter.

The $48 million facelift to Tiger Town was completed in February — a joint deal between Lakeland, Polk County and the state.

The overhaul comes during a time of transition for some Major League Baseball teams' spring training homes. The Atlanta Braves, for example, are negotiating a deal with Sarasota County, where the team would relocate from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World to North Port. The move involves construction of a $74 million baseball complex, paid, in part, with $21 million in county funds.

“Our No. 1 priority was to make sure we keep the Tigers,” says Bob Donahay, Lakeland's director of parks and recreation. “And we had to be willing to spend the money. They are a point of pride for the city.”

The Tigers-Lakeland relationship, which began in 1934, is the longest standing between a professional baseball team and a spring training city. “It's a win-win for fans, and it's arguably the best stadium in spring training,” says Mark Jackson, with Polk County Sports Marketing, adding that it had been 15 years since the stadium had been renovated. “It's about making money for the area and bringing in more visitors.”

The biggest changes to what's now Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium are in hospitality and technology, says Ron Myers, the Tigers director of Florida operations. One standout: The new scoreboard — 46 feet wide by 26 feet tall — is the second largest among spring training facilities, and fans can even grab a drink at the bar underneath it. Also, there was previously only one area for hospitality, and now there are six, adds Myers.

There are still 9,000 seats, but all of them have been upgraded, and there are no more bleachers. “Shade was a priority,” Myers says. Last season, 24 people passed out from heat exhaustion. “I've got so much shade, you better bring a jacket.”

There are now six covered sections of seats and more air-conditioned space. With all of the covered areas, the stadium can hold about 12,000 fans, says Donahay.

One final component to the renovations: the team enhanced its family-friendly experience. A playground and bounce house has been added for children, for example, and much-needed extra restrooms have also been added.

“All of this puts us at the top of the food chain for spring training,” says Donahay. “The best way to describe it, is we jumped 30 years in one year.”

Eat up
The renovations to Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium at Tiger Town in Lakeland include some new features, including:
Group tickets in Margaritaville include all-you-can-eat food and non-alcoholic beverages, early admission, a souvenir hat and group welcome on the video board;

The Hooters Dugout also gives ticket holders all-you-can-eat food and beverages, food served by Hooters waitresses and field access for player autographs;

The Pepsi Pavilion is available for groups of 30 people up to 200. It also offers unlimited food and beverages, early admission and a shaded food service area;

The '34 Club is an exclusive area for a minimum of 50 guests. It has an upscale dining menu, air-conditioned seating, private restrooms and cable television;

Concession stands have been expanded and will offer a variety of food.

Get more
The Tiger Town renovation project focused on the fan experience, but the players weren't left out. New amenities, according to team officials, include:

A 7,000-square-foot weight room — one of the largest in spring training;

Batting cages and a hydrotherapy room;

A full kitchen with an on-site chef; and

Artificial turf practice field.

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