Rays owner still distracting press from stadium subsidy demands by wavering on stadium site

The minute that the city of St. Petersburg approved letting the Tampa Bay Rays buy their way out of their lease and seek other stadium sites in the local area, I was worried that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg was going to turn this into a “Where will the Rays’ new stadium go?” debate before anyone considered who was actually going to pay for one. In entirely unrelated news, here’s a humongous article in the Tampa Bay Times all about how Sternberg plans to rank prospective stadium sites now that he’s discovered you can’t just point at them and say “I’ll take that one”:

“We had some ideas on locations that just weren’t available, that I thought would have worked perfectly, but they’re off the table,” Sternberg said before the Rays’ game at their spring training site in Port Charlotte. “So we’re sort of moving down our list to Nos. 2, 3 and 4.”

He likened the Rays’ stadium search to a team setting up its pitching rotation.

“It’s like starting pitchers, you have five of them and sometimes No. 4 is better than No. 2, but rarely better than No. 1,” Sternberg said. “The No. 1 is the No. 1. I hate to be mixing these sort of metaphors, but it sort of works in this case.”

First off: That’s not a mixed metaphor, as it’s perfectly consistent; it’s just a stupid metaphor, as pitching rotations are set up to have five choices because you need five days’ worth of pitchers, whereas you only need one stadium site. Also, you’re required to have some kind of pitcher on the mound every game, whereas if none of the stadium sites work out, Sternberg can simply remain with the status quo at Tropicana Field.

But anyway, what’s still on the table as far as Sternberg is concerned, from the nine sites floated last summer? Not the Heights site in Tampa (the landowners don’t want a stadium there), or the site of Jefferson High School (local elected officials don’t like it), or the sites of Albert Whitted Airport or Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete. Evicting 372 low-income families from the Tampa Park Apartments is still a potential option, and there’s still a few other places in and around Tampa-St. Pete that won’t be underwater for a while, so expect Sternberg to keep looking.

But now I’m falling into the trap: The bigger question isn’t where to put a stadium, but how to pay for one. Sternberg still hasn’t provided much in the way of details beyond the need for “a public-private partnership that would support the construction of the Rays next generation ballpark“; if he’s smart, he’ll keep it that way until he finally settles on a site, in the hopes that everyone will be so relieved about getting to stop debating locations that they’ll be happy to sign a blank check for construction. It’s not a sure strategy, but it’s certainly worked in the past, and it sure appears to be the endgame he’s preparing for — with the aid of the Tampa Bay Times, which assigned five people to work on this story and didn’t bother to quote a single person who wasn’t either a Rays official or a local politician in favor of building a new stadium. Oh, journalism.

12 comments on “Rays owner still distracting press from stadium subsidy demands by wavering on stadium site

  1. “But now I’m falling into the trap: The bigger question isn’t where to put a stadium, but how to pay for one.”

    I go you one further, Neil: The bigger question isn’t how to pay for a new stadium, but where to find fans to fill its seats. Take away the Rays’ first season, Tampa Bay has finished higher than tenth in AL attendance ONCE since 1999. Even when Maddon was turning chickens–t into chicken salad, the Rays never came in better than ninth in the ticket-selling derby. And the Marlins have done no better at the gate, unless one is impressed with a team that hasn’t ranked higher than 12th in NL attendance since 1997.

    Bottom line: You could build a Taj Mahal with baselines and a backstop in Tampa-St. Pete or Miami and people in either market will simply not give a rip. Football and NASCAR are what Floridians care about (in fairness, the Lightning DO draw well). It’s a great state for baseball players, not baseball fans.

    • The Marlins have far different problems. The Rays’ only problem is that they play on the wrong side of Tampa Bay. Have you ever tried to get across the Howard Frankland Bridge during rush hour? That is a real impediment to bringing fans over from Tampa. The Rays have to move to Tampa if they want to stay in the market.

      As for the Marlins, they have been ruined by Jeffrey Loria. He threw away their identity when he moved the team to the new park, and a lot of the fans have not forgiven him for that. They are also sore with the way he sold them the stadium. They also aren’t using a TDT to pay for the stadium. They are using their own tax dollars. Fortunately, he is not their problem anymore.

  2. I would argue that the location of the stadium is hardly Tampa’s only problem. Tampa Bay was a poor choice for an MLB team (from the perspective of MLB), as demonstrated by its inability to be anything other than a threat for MLB teams until the threat of an antitrust suit (following the White Sox move threat) “convinced” MLB to put a team there.

    Tampa is a lower-tier city by economic activity compared to most other MLB cities, and a very poor metropolitan area, even compensating for the cost of living. This definitely affects the ability of the region to support an MLB team with 81 games a year, particularly given the rich competition from college and other pro sports.

    This has nothing to do with whether Tampa Bay residents are good people or not, or “fair weather fans” or distracted by the good weather. They money just isn’t there for the kind of expectations MLB seems to have for itself these days.

  3. A few points from someone who was born and has lived in St Pete since 1961:
    1) The comment that the $$ just aren’t here is probably true but that statement could be applied to many more MLB towns in the near future as they price themselves out of their core market. It wasn’t that long ago if a team drew over 1.5 million in attendance with most tickets under $10 (think the 1980s), the team was considered successful. Now they need taxpayer paid stadiums and huge cable revenues to subsidize the player salaries (which are beyond the pale for the 99%). The owners only have themselves to blame for this mess.
    2) St Pete’s downtown is the most vibrant in the South and our Dali, Chihuly & other museums draw more paid patrons. There are thousands of people every night of the week who come downtown to eat, party and enjoy the waterfront. The Rays are horrible and lazy marketers. They draw nothing from Sarasota & Manatee counties. And if the Howard Franklin is that big of a deterrent (even though there are 2 other bridges from Tampa) to attendance, why are the Lightning & Bucs not complaining.
    3) Talking of the Lightning, you forget that the team couldn’t give their tickets away before the current owner got involved with the community and worked hard to integrate themselves on every level. He didn’t threaten to move the team every couple of months.
    4) MLB management from the commissioner to the owners have always been arrogant. Rarely in their history have there been anyone who truly cared for their fans. Now their reliance of selling the romance & nostalgia for the game is running into the cultural buzz saw of people cutting their cable bills and diminishing market appeal. The lack of youth baseball leagues & the supposed tedium of the A.D.D. fan who has been bombarded with the constant action/replays of football & basketball find baseball boring. No clocks or rule changes is going to change that rapidly emerging perception of baseball. Couple that with the fact that a family of 4 will drop $200 or more (between tickets, parking, food, etc) to see a game (81 times a yr) and it is no surprise that attendance sucks here. Not to be the canary in the coal mine but this fan disease is spreading throughout MLB. Just watch the highlights on ESPN any night of the week and see the swaths of empty seats throughout the ballparks. The team attendance numbers are generated & manipulated by the team management. I love baseball and have seen over 500 Rays games but no city deserves this extortion.

    • Thank You Louis Terry for an inside and insightful look of the Tampa/St.Pete area and how the greed and arrogance of professional sports teams owners have turned their backs on the common fan who will shell out a few bucks from time to time but cannot anymore due to the Greed which has Ruined all professional sports.

    • I live in Land O Lakes (a little more than a 70 mile round trip to the Trop). Have averaged about eighteen games a year since the first season. Transportation is an issue unfortunately, Takes me 1 1/2 to 2 hours to get to the game and on one memorable occasion I was still trying to get to the Trop three hours after leaving my home. The game was in progress so I returned home. There are no public transit options either. So getting to and from the ball park is an issue. You raise an interesting question about transportation being an issue for Buccaneer and Lightning fans. It would be interesting to see a percentage breakdown of the three major sports teams in the Tampa Bay area and the percentage of fans attending game from Tampa and St Petersburg.

  4. Then New York, Chicago & Los Angeles, you’re IN! But every other franchise city will be eternally on the bubble of extortion, relocation & extinction.

    The sad truth is that no town (not even LA & NY) is above the pain of trying to satisfy their arrogant owners incessant demand for more tax breaks, subsidies, fees and abatements. All I’m saying is that if MLB doesn’t re-adjust their business model, they could become as irrelevant as shopping malls, the Barnum & Bailey circus, Sears, WT Grant, et al. MLB’s shills and suckers may try to convince you otherwise but pro sports are a luxury everyone can live without.

    Pay to play or pay your mortgage, food, utilities? It’s a no brainer that even the politicians are (eventually) getting wise to..

    • I’m trying to figure out what business model adjustments you’re looking for. As you’ve said, sports are a luxury. Nobody’s forcing anybody to buy tickets or watch on TV. The subsidies are nice (for the teams) but they’re not a make-or-break issue for the survival of any team.

  5. A new stadium in a more easily accessible location will help the Rays. It will not make them a top third franchise, and will probably not get them out of the bottom sixth in terms of MLB gameday revenue.

    Given the wide array of entertainment choices in the Tampa area, I would suggest that the demise/relocation of the Rays will produce no net drop in economic activity in the region. Of the current MLB markets, it may be the least viable (Miami being another contender) with or without a new stadium.

  6. Regarding:
    The bigger question isn’t where to put a stadium, but how to pay for one. Sternberg still hasn’t provided much in the way of details beyond the need for “a public-private partnership that would support the construction of the Rays next generation ballpark“;
    The fair solution is a private/private partnership between the Rays and MLB, or they can leave Tampa Bay.

    Regrettably, Pinellas County/St. Pete is likely to bend over backwards to come up with lots of public funding – Hillsborough/Tampa not so much.

    It is absolutely clear that nobody knows if a new stadium will draw more fans, no matter where it is located in Tampa Bay. A project this risky is worthy of no public funding, especially since no public funding is needed.