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January 14, 2013
Florida courting MLS teams for Spring Training

By Charles Cuttone
Executive Editor

A growing number of MLS teams – 6 this season – are conducting spring training in Florida, capped by the Disney Pro Soccer Classic at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
A growing number of MLS teams – 6 this season – are conducting spring training in Florida, capped by the Disney Pro Soccer Classic at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
Photo courtesy Disney Sports
Baseball teams have been holding Spring Training in Florida for so long, it has become ingrained in the sporting consciousness, with baseball fans each year anxiously awaiting the arrival of pitchers and catchers.

The arrival of baseball teams in the Sunshine State – and, more importantly, the annual arrival of their fans -- is an economic development engine for Florida, with more than 1.5 million fans attending games annually. A 2009 Economic Impact Survey of Spring Training Baseball showed a $753 million benefit to the state annually. Since the 2000 season, more than 20 million fans have passed through the turnstiles at Florida stadiums.

Now the state wants to do the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale, with Major League Soccer spring training. The idea started with Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports two years ago.

"They started the Pro Soccer Classic, which was the genesis of the idea," said Kevin Coulthart, Vice President of Marketing & Events for the Central Florida Sports Commission.

This February, six MLS teams, the Philadelphia Union, DC United, Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, Sporting Kansas City and the Columbus Crew, will be joined by NASL side Tampa Bay Rowdies and USL Pro side Orlando City FC in the tournament.

"We want to try to create a permanent property," said Coulthart.

The teams will train at different facilities throughout Central Florida, including Disney, with four dates of the tournament taking place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility.

The state is providing some funding for the project, which also has the backing of Volusia, Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties.

Currently there are only two Major League Baseball teams that train in the area, the Atlanta Braves who are at the Disney complex and the Houston Astros who are in nearby Kissimmee, so there is room for growth.

"It’s a building process," said Coulthart. "We think the possibilities are very rich. Part of it is changing the mindset of teams."

MLS is firmly behind the idea of centralized Spring Training, and is looking at a model similar to baseball, with Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.

"They see the benefits of what this could be," said Coulthart.

The Disney Pro Soccer Classic kicks off Saturday, February 9, with four games. There are three dates of quadruple headers, Feb 13 and 16, and the championships are on the 23rd.

The Central Florida Sports Commission hopes to grow the number of teams in the area, but expects at least the same number to return next pre-season.

Moving forward, it’s probably a good bet teams from Northern climes, especially those in the east, will be approached about spring in Florida.

"We look at teams that would be good travel options," said Coulthart.

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