If Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg’s goal yesterday with his vote of no confidence for St. Petersburg was to kick-start public discussion of a new stadium, he got it in spades: Both the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune are crammed with articles today on the future of the Rays. Among the highlights:
- Sternberg’s declaration that he will only participate in a region-wide stadium search “gave a jolt to the community of developers in the region,” according to the Tribune, though the only developer actually cited is former Tampa mayor Dick Greco, who has a plan to build something at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Hillsborough County that might or might not include a stadium. “Everyone needs to come together and work on what sites could suit their needs, with the right location and amenities,” said Greco. “This is going to start a race of people trying to do just that.”
- As for what he’ll do if a stadium plan doesn’t materialize, Sternberg told the Tribune editorial board on Monday: “If I don’t get a sense that there’s real cooperation and movement here, I’d sell the team. And there’d be no reason for anyone else to keep it here.” Trib columnist Joe Henderson rightly called this a page from “Strongarm Tactics 101” — though, somewhat oddly, Henderson said he was less worried about the team moving than about Sternberg selling it to an owner who would run it into the ground.
- While Sternberg carefully avoided actually threatening to move the team, he showed that he’s mastered the non-threat threat, declaring: “If I were just coming into this, and you dropped me in the middle of the United States, this isn’t going to be one of the top five markets that doesn’t have baseball.” Asked for clarification, he said there are “at least five” markets without baseball teams that are more attractive than Tampa Bay. Immediate speculation focused on Charlotte and Las Vegas, though those are both actually smaller markets than Tampa Bay and, of course, neither has a major-league-ready stadium or any plans for one; after that… San Antonio? Hartford? Stu, can you tell us what letter it starts with?
- St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, knowing that the Rays have a Tropicana Field lease that could allow the city to sue for damages if the Rays even talk to another city about moving there before 2027, threatened to do just that, saying, “Like it or not, we are married and joined at the hip until 2027. The city of St. Petersburg, quite frankly, won’t be brushed aside.” Foster did, though, say he’d be willing to negotiate “if the price is right” — though it wasn’t clear whether he meant the price of a new stadium or the price of a buyout from the lease.
- Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan fired back, saying St. Petersburg leaders need to admit that “if we do not have a regional dialogue, we may well be looking at the Charlotte Rays or the Las Vegas Rays.” The Times editorial board, meanwhile, called on Foster to “stop threatening lawsuits and start thinking more creatively,” while praising Sternberg for speaking “responsibly and clearly about the Rays’ need for a new stadium,” saying, “He did not make threats, and he did not make demands.” Not directly, anyhow.
At this point, Foster’s position seems a reasonable one: The lease is the only piece of leverage he has, and it’s a pretty good one, since there’s no way Sternberg wants to go through a protracted legal battle before he can even begin stadium talks in earnest. St. Petersburg’s best option might actually be to negotiate a buyout in which Sternberg pays the city to be allowed to talk to other cities — or, more likely, to promise St. Pete a large wad of cash in the event that the team moves out of the Trop before the lease is up. That way St. Pete would get some value for its lease, plus would get the Trop site to redevelop — while letting Tampa and Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties fight for the right to sink money into a new stadium, if they so choose.
Yes, it would mean “losing” the Rays. But if you ask St. Pete residents if they think it’s worth $250 million — the minimum public investment needed to build a new stadium, according to Rays exec Michael Kalt — to avoid driving across the bay to see Rays games, my guess is most of them would take the cash.