Sternberg: Rays suck because fans suck, MLB could “vaporize” them (Rays, not fans)

With the Tampa Bay Rays‘ elimination from the postseason on Tuesday, team owner Stu Sternberg took it as an opportunity to gripe about how tough it is to put together a winning ballclub when the turnstiles aren’t clicking like in New York and Boston:

“We replicated last year and our numbers were down,” Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg said in the clubhouse. “The (television) ratings were down. The rubber has got to hit the road at some point. We’re four years into winning. We’re getting to the point where we don’t control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model.”

In fact, he added, the Rays’ poor attendance — next to last in the league, if you’re scoring at home — might have even cost the team a championship:

“When you’re sitting here at this point and you lost by a run, you know another X dollars might have changed things…Three or five million wouldn’t have changed things necessarily but 15 to 30 might have. That’s where we were. And for the foreseeable future that’s what we’ve got.”

Leaving aside whether poor attendance is really to blame for Sternberg not spending an extra $30 million — at an average ticket price of $19.42, taking into account that increased revenues would mean decreased revenue sharing checks, the Rays would have needed to at least double their attendance to put that much new money in Sternberg’s pockets — the threat is clear here: Spend money, or we’ll shoot this team. Or, Sternberg continued even more ominously, somebody else could shoot it for us:

“It won’t be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it’s going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check (to buy the team). But it’s going to get vaporized.”

All this, not least of it the timing of Sternberg making his comments when the Rays’ playoff corpse wasn’t even cool, caused the sports media to go completely apeshit. My ex-Baseball Prospectus colleague Maury Brown further fanned the flames with a blog post saying that while he didn’t expect the Rays to be moved or contracted, Tampa Bay fans don’t “deserve” their team, which spawned its own uproar, including speculation that Maury’s article was just sour grapes about not being able to get a team for his own hometown of Portland.

This debate will likely rage for a while, further fanning the flames of the Rays’ barely simmering stadium controversy. But even as fans debate whether the attendance problem stems from the stadium being in the wrong place (Sternberg’s favorite argument) or to the team being in the wrong place (as this guy argues), there’s an elephant in the room that hasn’t been much discussed. As my other ex-BP colleague (and current poobah) Marc Normandin remarked to me this morning:

“They’ll just say, ‘It’s the park.’ ‘It’s the economy.’ Not, ‘The fans saw we cut payroll by 40% and responded by not buying tickets regardless of the team’s performance.’ The only way they were getting away with that is if they won the World Series.”

And there’s the rub: Sternberg may have saved himself $30 million by cutting payroll this year, but you could make a case that he cost himself just as much in revenues: not only all the fans who were driven away by the fact that their Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena jerseys were now out-of-date, and who weren’t brought back by a pennant race that didn’t start in earnest until the Red Sox decided to collapse in September, but also the estimated $1 million and change per home playoff game that the Rays could have gotten from advancing to the World Series, plus the almost-certain bump in 2012 attendance (and TV viewership) that could have come along with “your World Champion Tampa Bay Rays.” That’s why they pay athletes the big bucks, after all: the hope that that one guy’s swing of the bat will launch your team into the promised land, where jersey sales rain like manna and the afterglow of victory sells tickets for years down the road.

Sternberg really seems to be saying, then, is: “I finally got sick of investing money in my business in hopes of a World Series title that wasn’t coming, so I jettisoned my entire bullpen and half my starting lineup to save money. And we still made the playoffs! And this is how you repay me? By not buying tickets to the games back in the regular season, before we made the playoffs!”

Still, it at least looks like a sign that Sternberg has thrown in the towel on the “Let’s win games and see if people get excited enough to build us a new stadium” plan, and is instead headed down the “Let’s lose games and tell fans they’ll never have a winner until they build us a new stadium” road. Because next year, surely, there will be no hope of catching lightning in a bottle again—

“We’re going to be a really talented team next year,” [Rays GM Andrew] Friedman said, sitting alongside [manager Joe] Maddon. “We’ve proven time and time again that it’s not necessarily about the payroll number; it’s about the talent we have. So, it’s easy to use (revenue) as an excuse, but the two of us refuse to do so.”

Maddon called the team’s success — built around youth, pitching, and defense, not big spending — a “validation of the system.”

On second thought, maybe it’s best to withhold judgment on any of this until everybody gets the same memo.

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12 comments on “Sternberg: Rays suck because fans suck, MLB could “vaporize” them (Rays, not fans)

  1. “Still, it at least looks like a sign that Sternberg has thrown in the towel on the “Let’s win games and see if people get excited enough to build us a new stadium” plan, and is instead headed down the “Let’s lose games and tell fans they’ll never have a winner until they build us a new stadium” road.”

    It worked for the Marlins down in Miami, so why not try it in TPA/STP?

  2. If Mr. Sternberg has truly bought a business that doesn’t work financially (and I don’t believe that for one minute, frankly), he has no-one else to blame but himself.

    Many business owners (large and small) have had to face this reality. In doing so, they generally write down 25-50% of their purchase price as a “stupidity tax”, sell the business and move on.

    Anyone think that is likely to happen here?

  3. To be fair, and it pains me to say this, but at least someof the complaints about attendance are in regard to the sparse crowds at the final homestand/playoffs. The idea that fewer than 30,000 would come out for a playoff game is, well, rather pathetic. I lived through the sparse years in Seattle, and am loathe to accuse an entire region of not supporting their team (something Seattle was accused of over and over again until 1995). But at least Seattlites turned out once the team became good.

    I guess what I’m saying it that using slashed payroll as a reason for poor attendance is a valid argument for the beginning and middle of the regular season, but not when the team is in the thick of a pennant race, let alone the ACTUAL FLIPPING PLAYOFFS. Sternberg deserves to be scolded for his extortion, but he does have a point.

  4. The region/fanbase/general population doesn’t owe Sternberg or the Rays a goddamn thing. They don’t owe them attendance, they don’t owe them merchandise purchases.

    If Best Buy over-expands into your suburb and the area cannot support the store would anyone say “Boy the citizens of Sunshine really should support that Best Buy. Don’t they know how lucky they are to have a Best Buy? Rural towns all over the country would kill for that Best Buy, and yet they have the gall to spend their hard earned money on their mortgage instead. Ingrates…”

    The attendance problems in Miami and Tampa probably have a lot to do with the huge housing collapse there. Many many people lost everything or are in debt up to their eyeballs. You really begrudge them not going to some stupid baseball games?

  5. Sometimes owners like Sternberg forget that they are in the “entertainment” business and not on some crusade to restore civic pride and virtue.

    A businessman that wanted to succeed would be talking up what is good about his product and minimizing what is lacking. In a smaller market, that demands some extra effort and creativity to get the fans to the market.

    If the stadium is in a bad location for commuting, did anyone organize a shuttle service from Tampa? Were the tickets priced reasonably? Did the team reach out to potential customers vigorously with the limited time available? Probably not.

    Strangely enough, as often as the ownership has said what a dump the stadium is, they seem to convince folks that it is true. Teams that badmouth their stadiums tend to have lousy attendance. The Phillies in Veterans Stadium come to mind. George Steinbrenner did the same thing with Yankee Stadium years ago when the team was mediocre. Folks seemed to feel safer when the team was winning.

    I’d be looking at the competence of my marketing team and not the moral fiber of a community that has taken its lumps in this economic downturn.

  6. Neil- Carl Crawford was a horrible signing for the Red Sox. He will be one of the worst free agent signings in baseball history if he keeps playing like he did this year. Carlos Pena hit below .200 in his last year with the Rays and only got a 1 year deal as a free agent with the Cubs. If they would have kept these guys fans would then have the excuse that they have no future because they wasted all this money on a crappy outfield like Carl Crawford. These guys were far from being all-stars.

    The problem is that baseball and all sports really have over expanded badly in the 1990’s and there are too many markets that can’t support teams. There are only 2 ways out of this for the owners 1.Contraction or 2.Massive subsidies from idiot communities who want to be “major league”. Guess what? Not every community is “major league”.

    I think that the leagues should be able to contract although it will never be allowed unfortunately. If the argument against sports stadiums is that these are private businesses (which i agree with) that shouldn’t be given public dollars, then these private businesses should be able to fold if they are a money loser that has no fan interest.No crying about the 1000 fans or so that care. Any other failing business would be allowed to fold. It’s much better to allow contraction then have some stupid community have to prop up a failing team by give multimillions. I never understood why anti-stadium advocates don’t support contraction. This would solve a some of the stadium silliness that goes on.
    Less teams=Less teams to ask for handouts/new stadiums.

    What’s going to happen is that they will eventually build a new stadium mostly publically financed in Tampa hoping it will solve all the Rays problems. It will draw for a year or 2 then it will be empty since there are too many transplants/lack of interest in Tampa. (Just like what’s going to happen with the Marlins). Then the team will ask for more help to keep afloat (ala Phoenix Coyotes). The city will give in because gosh we can’t leave the new ballpark go to waste and we won’t be “major league” without the Rays. There’s no way that this is a better option than contraction.

  7. Mark,

    All excellent points. However, I would put a different “nuance” on the level of support required for a team.

    If you look at the attendance numbers for MLB in the 1970s, most would have been delighted for the number of tickets sold by the Rays. Even good teams, like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, scarcely averaged 20k in years they won the World Series. The 1980s weren’t that much different. America is a bigger country now, but even with that the numbers overall were pretty small (I think 1985 was the first time in a while that every team drew 1 million)

    What does stick out is the huge numbers for teams in the 1990s, particularly during the stock market boom. Teams built stadiums with a large number of luxury boxes and premium seats that are unaffordable for the average fan but demand a long-term seasonal commitment by local business to maintain price levels.

    The boom is off and prices are still high, and numbers have returned closer to a historical norm for many teams. For others in hock, like Boston and Philadelphia, the drop may be coming soon.

    The problem isn’t just the stadium, which is bad enough, it is the “requirement” of teams to build a luxury “fan experience” with taxpayer dollars–which causes an even bigger explosion of costs. Not sure why folks in Tampa need to make sure there is a plasma TV every 30 feet in a new stadium.

  8. GDub-MLB still had one of its highest attendances ever this year overall. I heard Selig bragging about it a week ago. The problem with saying that Tampa Bay’s crowd is ok this year because it is what most teams drew during the 1970’s is that the players aren’t making 1970’s salaries anymore and most teams are drawing well outside of a few teams. If Tampa didn’t get revenue sharing they’d be losing money because they are a failed business in a failed baseball market. Nothing is going to change the fact that Tampa Bay is oversaturated with 3 pro teams and that there are too many transplants who are Red Sox, Yankee and Cub fans.

    I seriously doubt Boston and Philadelphia will have big drop offs in attendance. They are big market teams playing in good baseball markets.
    If it was up to me I’d chop off the bottom 6 or so teams in MLB, NBA and the NHL. Just think of all the money that could be saved long term for everyone. If every 30 years these 18 teams I’d put up for contraction demanded a publically funded new stadium for 500 million dollars you could save 9 BILLION dollars nationwide every 30 years by making these teams cease to exist. The leagues could save because without these bottom feeders the top teams like the Yankees wouldn’t have to send them a revenue sharing(welfare) check. Perhaps with the money saved from not sending a revenue sharing check to a city that doesn’t support a team the Yankees for example could put that towards their own stadium:)
    A win-win for all involved.

    Now i realize for most of these teams play in new buildings so they can’t be folded because of leases but when they run out in 20-30 years then fold them when the next round of new stadium handouts start.

  9. Mark,

    Agree with all. I don’t mean to make a total relationship between the 1970s and today. Only that complaining about an average attendance of 20k for a decent sized metropolitan area with below average income isn’t being realistic from a historical standpoint.

    Agree on overexpansion. Tampa doesn’t have the corporate strength or individual income to sustain a large season ticket base for so many professional teams–leaving aside the question of interest.

    The truth is that a lot of expansion teams happened in the 1960s and 1970s for less than “sporting” reasons–many of which had to do with political pressure from Congress when teams moved (leading to threats of removing the antitrust exemption). Some have worked out, some haven’t–but Tampa definitely fit in that pattern.

    Boston and Philadelphia have been playing games for a while to keep their sellout “streaks” going. The team will draw, but interest will drop when the teams fade, which may start soon.

  10. Quick question: does anyone have the numbers for fans who buy day of game tickets? How does Tampa rank by that measure?

    I wonder if the middle-class fans are supporting the team, but the luxury box and high ticket fans are not?

    (BTW: Seattle has been in the bottom half of league attendance for 21 out of 35 seasons. Imagine what that attendance would have been if they had placed the team South of Seattle and called it the Puget Sound Mariners?)

  11. Chuck;

    I think your question is apt for a great number of sports franchises across many different leagues. The days of sports franchises focusing exclusively on corporate sales and largely ignoring the paying fan are either coming to an end or will be severely curtailed (modifying tax laws to eliminate deductions for some of this incredible graft would go a long way to levelling that playing field, too) in the coming years.

    In my view, it would be no bad thing if sports businesses were required to meet the needs of their actual paying supporters rather than corporate clients, for whom the support is in many ways a payment in lieu of taxes.

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