The Tampa Bay Times interviews Tampa Bay Partnership chair Chuck Sykes today about the prospect of a new Rays stadium, and he has a lot to say — mostly about how the Rays are profitable right now with the help of MLB’s revenue-sharing program, and this cannot continue:
“People asked questions about Bud Selig and his recent comments,” Sykes said. “Bud’s a very patient guy with these things, but (other team owners) are not happy with the situation … because if you think about it, the thing right now that’s really sustaining the team is revenue-sharing.”
Under the league’s revenue-sharing program, teams saddled with aging stadiums and spotty attendance often receive tens of millions of dollars a year from wealthier teams with more robust fan bases.
That creates pressure for action, Sykes said. When he led a chamber of commerce task force that studied baseball stadium financing, some people told Sykes that baseball owners would never walk away from the nation’s 14th-largest television market, but he said no one should become complacent.
What the Rays leadership told the partnership was that the team’s “sustainability is driven off revenue-sharing,” Sykes said. “That is not a long-term winning formula.”
Okay, where to begin? First off, the revenue-sharing program is not intended for teams with “aging stadiums and spotty attendance” — it’s for any teams with low revenues, whether because the team sucks and fans aren’t showing up, or because they just play in a small market. It’s the very nature of revenue-sharing that some teams are going to get checks: If the Rays somehow jumped to the upper echelon of earners thanks to a new stadium, it would likely only displace a different team into the revenue-sharing recipient pool. That’s the whole point of the program, really: To balance out revenues in a world where the Yankees could otherwise spend their opponents into oblivion just on the backs of their cable revenues.
And about that jumping to the upper echelon thing, Sykes had this to say:
Sykes said it was interesting to hear that the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians used to be recipients of revenue-sharing, “then over time, as they worked with their various initiatives and new stadiums, they’re now a payer into the system.”
Now, MLB doesn’t publicize who’s sending checks to whom, but the notion that the Indians in particular are now “a payer into the system” is more than a bit dubious: According to Forbes, as of two years ago the Indians were recipients of the biggest revenue-sharing check in baseball; and since then, the team’s attendance has actually gone down. And even if somehow they’ve made a miraculous turnaround since then, it’s hard to see how this can be credited to a stadium that opened in 1994.
It looks like this is going to be the Rays’ PR strategy, though: Yeah, we’re winning ballgames, and making money, but we’re doing it with the help of this revenue-sharing program that MLB specifically set up to help low-revenue teams win ballgames and make money, and there’s no way they’re going to let that continue. To which the sensible response would be: What, so MLB thinks the Rays wouldn’t be revenue-sharing recipients if it moved them to Charlotte or something? But then, sensible responses aren’t the game that MLB is playing — nor, it would seem, is the Tampa Bay Times.