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 Rotohardball.com 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.