Polk’s Economy Springs Forward: RussMatt Baseball
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
Six years ago Polk County was on the verge of becoming the burial ground for Major League Baseball spring training facilities. That was until a college baseball coach from Portland, Maine, injected new life into some abandoned ballparks.
During the late 1980s Polk County was the spring home of three MLB teams: the Boston Red Sox in Winter Haven, the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, and the Kansas City Royals in Davenport. That was more than any county in the state.
The Red Sox left Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven in 1992. The Cleveland Indians moved into the complex in 1993 after Hurricane Andrew destroyed their facilities in Homestead. But they packed up and moved to Arizona in 2008. The Royals trained at Baseball City Stadium in Davenport from 1988 until 2002 before they, too, moved to Arizona. Only the Tigers remain.
In 2008, Dave Barnard resurrected Polk County’s spring baseball scene with the RussMatt Invitational, the most successful college baseball tournament in Florida.
“We are by far the biggest player in the market,” says Barnard. “There’s probably a half dozen tournament organizers in Florida. We’re bigger than all of those combined.”
Every spring hundreds of teams flock to Polk County for the tournament, named after Barnard’s two sons, Russell and Mathew.
According to Central Florida’s Polk County Sports Marketing, the RussMatt tournament’s economic impact on the area is about $23.9 million.
Marc Zimmerman, sales and events manager at Polk County Sports Marketing, says the college baseball tournament fills a void left by MLB teams.
“It’s certainly not the same thing but it’s been essential for us to replace it,” says Zimmerman. “While spring training was based on fans. This tournament’s focus is on the teams and the fans.”
Barnard was the coach for Williams College (Massachusetts) when he came up with the idea for RussMatt.
“I sort of stumbled into it,” he says. “We always went to Florida to train at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa because George Steinbrenner was a Williams graduate.”
Access to the Yankees facilities was great. However, Barnard found it difficult to attract other teams to play against. In 2003, when the Philadelphia Phillies built a new stadium in Clearwater, Barnard asked the city’s parks and recreation department if he could use the old facilities.
He then had one of his players create a website to recruit some competition. Within a couple of years he had 40 teams heading to Central Florida for his budding tournament.
Barnard has since retired from coaching and operates the tournament full-time. This spring more than 200 teams will participate in the tournament, which hosts games in Polk County and the Tampa Bay area. “We will have about a thousand games from the last week of February through March,” says Barnard.
Nearly 6,000 players come from colleges ranging from small National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) schools to Big Ten Conference Champions Indiana.
“We have mostly Division III schools but we have all NCAA divisions, junior colleges and NAIA schools. We only have 15 or 20 Division I schools,” he says. “Most of those are Ivy League, Patriot League or lower level Division I schools.”
Harvard and Yale are participating in the tournament this year, as well as Army, Bucknell and Northwestern.
Unlike MLB spring games, which are exhibitions, the tournament games count. “On the college level you graduate in late May so the season is much shorter,” says Barnard. “So the teams pretty much have to play games that count in Florida to get games in due to the weather up North.”
Polk County’s affordability, as well as the many baseball facilities, make it ideal for college teams on a budget.
“Our competitors are all close to the water and that drives the price point up a lot on lodging,” says Barnard. “So the cheaper lodging and the availability of condos and vacation homes is a factor that we have that no other tournaments in Florida do.”
The Chain of Lakes complex was key to the tournament’s growth. When Barnard agreed to organize the tournament, a developer had purchased the land at Chain of Lakes with the intention of tearing the baseball complex down.
“We would have been stuck with no facilities before the tournament even got here,” says Zimmerman. So they built the baseball complex at Lake Myrtle in Auburndale. The development plans fell through and Chain of Lakes complex remains. “We were able to expand the tournament.”
The tournament has been so successful, says Zimmerman, that they’ve used Barnard’s model to bring in some softball teams at the same time. This year more than 110 NAIA, Junior College, Division I, II and III college softball teams are expected to participate in the Rebel Spring Games tournament.
With Chain of Lakes as the centerpiece, the RussMatt tournament continues to grow. In February and March lines of charter buses can be seen along the entrance to Chain of Lakes. Baseball players, many still in uniform, frequent the nearby restaurants along Cypress Gardens Blvd.
Barnard believes the tournament will continue to grow. “We’re only really restricted by the number of fields we can get.”
For more info visit RussMattBaseball.com.