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Braves launch search for new spring site

Champion Stadium

We hinted at this a few weeks ago, and now the details are emerging: the Atlanta Braves are indeed ready to say goodbye to Disney World and Champion Stadium for spring training, as the team has made preliminary contact with several Florida counties about a move.

When the Houston Astros move away from Kissimmee and the Washington Nationals move away from Viera in 2017 — if a new West Palm Beach spring complex receives state funding — the Braves will be isolated in terms of spring-training camps, with Detroit’s Lakeland complex the closest camp. The Grapefruit League will basically be in three clusters: Treasure Coast (St. Louis, Miami, New York Mets, Washington and Houston), Tampa-St. Pete (Detroit, New York Yankees, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore) and Fort Myers (Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Boston). Atlanta really isn’t close to any of the clusters past Lakeland.

As we noted on March 30, Atlanta Braves branding at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports and Champion Stadium is nonexistent, and the Braves are clearly now a secondary tenant to bigger events. Orlando has developed into such a tourism powerhouse that the presence of the Braves really doesn’t make a difference, and the success of Disney in establishing Wide World of Sports as a sports-tourism powerhouse makes the Braves almost superfluous. We also noted it was not a secret that the Braves were unhappy with this situation:

Atlanta’s agreement with Disney expires in coming years. When Champion Stadium opened, it was in a little-used corner of the Disney World empire. Since then, sports tourism has exploded, and Disney took advantage of that development with an expansion of the Wide World of Sports area with multiple arenas, additional diamonds and soccer fields, and more. Spring training, once a centerpiece of the complex, is now an afterthought.

So that brings us to today’s news: the Braves are indeed taking the first steps toward a new spring-training complex, focusing initial efforts on several communities in Florida that fit within the existing Grapefruit League footprint, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The Braves have engaged commercial real-estate services firm JLL — the same firm working with the team on its new stadium and mixed-use development in Cobb County — to “assist us (with) site finding in Florida,” Braves president John Schuerholz said.

“They have talked to a number of communities to find out what the level of interest is or might be,” Schuerholz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They visited not only Palm Beach County but several other counties as well.”

Schuerholz would not name the others. A Florida sports official told the AJC last month that he’d heard of Braves’ discussions with or about the cities of Venice (near Sarasota), Naples, Fort Myers and others.

To be clear, these discussions are of the most preliminary sort. The state funding for the Nationals/Astros complex in West Palm Beach is still up in the air and probably won’t be determined until the final days of the Florida Legislature, and we’re told little will be done on the Braves end until it’s clear West Palm can land the new complex. Realistically, it will take a county to build a new spring-training complex because of the cost (some $80-$100 million) and the ability to tap into county-wide taxes, like the hotel taxes funding the new Nats/Astros complex. There’s no hotel-tax money in Lee County and Fort Myers for a new or renovated complex; a deal to put the Washington Nationals in City of Palms Park died because of the lack of available money, but things could be different now. Venice is intriguing; officials there have talked spring training before.

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