As we approach spring training I’m always reminded of an interesting contrast between MLB and the NFL. Baseball is and always will be America’s pasttime. However most people argue that the NFL is king in America. We can debate all day long which sport is better and so forth, however I would submit that people’s thirst for the NFL builds up all week long and by the time Sunday rolls around and their team plays they’re raring to go. Baseball on the other hand is an everyday affair that many people follow by looking at box scores and watching the occasional game. (And please believe me folks when I say that I’m as big a football fan as anyone else!)
One big difference between the sports however is how they treat their training camps and exhibition schedules, and how they’re perceived by fans. Baseball, which many people would argue isn’t as popular as the NFL, returns to us each March (February this year) in the form of spring training. Fans take blocks of time off and plan trips to both Florida and Arizona to catch a few of their favorite teams’ games. It turns into a huge enterprise in that hotel chains, airlines, etc. have specials to draw people in from the north to come to those places to see games. Teams such as the Baltimore Orioles have created state-of-the-art facilities such as Ed Smith Stadium that have all the creature comforts of a big league park from the fans’ perspective. Yet ultimately the games don’t count, and they’re often plaqued by mistakes (especially at the beginning of spring training).
My point is that MLB’s spring training is a hugely popular thing that generates lots of revenue for the teams and for Florida/Arizona towns that host them. Contrast that with NFL preseason, and there’s a stark difference. NFL season ticket holders (of which I am one) are required to purchase preseason tickets at regular season prices, and at times it seems that fans almost begrudgingly attend the games because they were forced to pay for the tickets. I know people who despise preseason games. In no way do I feel that the quality of the on-field product is up to regular season standards, however I always enjoy being able to get out to the stadium for the first time that year and getting to see a live football game. Ironically some of the same people who supposedly would rather see paint dry than watch preseason football will show up to to watch training camp. Even though preseason games are watered down without a doubt, wouldn’t people rather see a live game than a practice?
I suppose it matters the person, however keep in mind that spring training is also a “destination.” Most fans have to physically make plans to go to Florida/Arizona, and as I said above it’s a vacation of sorts for them. With a few exceptions, most NFL teams play two preseason games at home and two on the road. Thus the fans don’t get to physically go anywhere to be at the game. There’s also the cost issue. Most people resent having to buy tickets for games that don’t count. If you’re an MLB season ticket holder, obviously you aren’t “required” to purchase spring training tickets because the games aren’t even at your team’s home park. (Some teams will have their final Grapefruit/Cactus League game at their home park – or in another team’s home park – but season ticket holders are often offered tickets to that for free.)
I suppose it’s just a different atmosphere on both sides. Baseball is a summer sport so many people associate it with vacation. Thus heading to spring training is a ritual because it’s warm there already. Football being a winter sport doesn’t get that luxury. Again…different strokes for different folks.