The words “Spring training” have long been associated with Florida, but as Major League Baseball teams prepare for the 2011 season this month, there...

The words “Spring training” have long been associated with Florida, but as Major League Baseball teams prepare for the 2011 season this month, there will be as many teams practicing in Arizona as Florida.

Spring training and the Grapefruit League has been big business for decades in Florida, but baseball has made impressive winter inroads in Arizona, where the Cactus League schedule began last week. Over the last 15 years, six teams — the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers — have moved their complexes west and turned Arizona, which was traditionally the spring training home of western-based teams, into a February and March vacation destination for fans from around the country.

In addition, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, a pair of 1990s expansion franchises who have always conducted spring training in Arizona, moved last month into the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in suburban Phoenix. The facility includes an 11,000-seat stadium, 12 practice fields (six apiece) and separate clubhouses for each franchise.

The influx of new teams and new facilities (eight stadiums have been built in the last 20 years) is good news for the Arizona economy — the Arizona Republic newspaper reported that the Cactus League generates more than $300 million per year in the greater Phoenix area — and a challenge for the handful of teams that have called Arizona their spring home for decades.

The Chicago Cubs, who have practiced in Arizona since 1967 and in their current home in Mesa since 1979, are expected to take a minor hit at the gate as fans head over to the joint facility of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, which is located just minutes from the Cubs’ HoHoKam Park.

“Every time there’s a new stadium, more people want to see the new stadium, that’s normal,” Robert Brinton, the president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors’ Bureau told the Arizona Republic Monday, February 28.

Brinton told the Republic ticket sales are behind those from a year ago, but atypically wintry weather in Arizona — the Cubs and Oakland Athletics played in sleet in their Cactus League opener Sunday, February 27 — has hurt the Cubs. He expects the Cubs’ average to fall short of last year’s totals, but hosting four more games than a year ago should allow the Cubs to draw more fans than in 2010.

About 152,000 fans walked through the turnstiles for the 14 games at HoHoKam Park last year. “I think you may see a slip in average attendance, but because of 18 games, we should be pushing up to 180,000,” Brinton told the Republic.