Feb. 21, 2006--As Major League Baseball players make their way to warmer climates for spring training this week, host cities in Florida and Arizona are hoping for a midwinter economic boom -- as much as $700 million in combined revenue, according to some estimates. Economists, however, say the annual pilgrimage by baseball's top stars is more a strikeout than home run for local businesses.

For years, communities have fought to host teams, based in part on the local economic benefit that supporters claim. Despite losing teams to Arizona's Cactus League in recent years, Florida still hit an attendance record last year, with close to 1.6 million baseball fans attending 256 games. A study commissioned by the Florida Sports Foundation in 2000 showed that spring training pumps close to $500 million into the Sunshine State's economy.

The Cactus League, with its 12 teams in Arizona, estimates that each team brings between $10 million and $15 million into the state's economy annually.

But economists have their doubts about such forecasts, which they claim are overly optimistic. "The evidence we have from a couple of studies suggests that [spring training] has next to no impact in Florida or in Arizona," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has published extensively on the economics of baseball.

Zimbalist said March is a heavy vacation month anyway, and cited a study that showed no change in hotel occupancy rates in 1995 when a baseball strike cancelled spring training.

Linda Schlata, who owns the 20-room Sea Chest Motel, about two miles from where the Boston Red Sox hold preseason in Fort Myers, Fla., said that she is glad the city hosts spring training, but that her business sees little noticeable boost. There are just two Sox fans who return annually, she said.

According to Schlata, many people stay in better-known Sarasota and drive the 75 miles to Fort Myers to catch a game or two, because they may also be in town for golf, swimming, and other vacation activities. "Spring training is just another thing that people enjoy," she said.

Robert Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College, has studied the impact of spring training, and found that despite the games' popularity, not many fans actually plan vacations around them. "The idea that there are an appreciable number of people who come down for spring training alone is probably a bit of an exaggeration," he said.

For some host cities, though, spring training is "the catalyst" for broader economic development, according to Mark Coronado, community and recreation services director for the city of Surprise, Ariz. In 2003, Surprise spent $48 million on a stadium and public recreation complex that lured both the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals to Arizona from Florida. Coronado points to seven new restaurants around the park and a Hampton Inn that opened in August, as evidence.

Even though the facility's biggest economic impact comes from spring training, Coronado said that both teams have a year-round presence in town, with rookie and instructional programs. The complex, which hosts other events such as amateur football and baseball games, also includes a public park, pool, and library.