MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declared Friday that “the focus is on St. Petersburg” for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, indicating that team owner Stuart Sternberg will begin negotiating for a new home on the Pinellas County side of the bay. Which, you know, of course he will: Following the collapse of talks for a new stadium across the bay in Tampa when it turned out he didn’t wanna pay for one and nobody else did either, Sternberg is locked into a lease that won’t even let him think about a stadium elsewhere until 2027.
For the next eight years, then, we’re destined to hear talk, and lots of it, of where a new stadium could go in St. Pete. The Tampa Bay Times, which up till now has been a reliable channeler of Sternberg’s raw desires, says that the owner is still uncertain about whether he can sell enough tickets in St. Pete, even adding that if he presented other MLB owners with plans for a new stadium there, “It’s possible they would say no.” If he’s trying to drive a hard bargain with local elected officials by playing hard to get, it didn’t work immediately: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is reportedly open to a new stadium elsewhere on the Tropicana Field property, but told the Times, “I’m not going to negotiate against myself. I’ve made it clear if they want to talk about it, they have to tell me they’re interested.”
The problem here, as always, is money: Pinellas County has more uncommitted tax revenue available to offer for a Rays stadium, but that doesn’t mean it makes any sense for the west side of the bay to throw money at Sternberg, especially when right now he has zero other options. And Sternberg isn’t wrong that being on the more-isolated St. Pete side of the bay limits the number of fans who can easily get to games — the drive from Tampa is difficult, from Orlando damn near impossible — so if he didn’t want to chip in more than $150 million (plus maybe naming rights money) for a Tampa stadium, it’s tough to imagine him wanting to dig much deeper in St. Pete, though he could raise a bit more either by cashing in his shared rights to develop the rest of the Trop site, or selling them back to the city.
Still, it’s going to be tough to get to the nearly $1 billion expected cost of a new stadium without somebody taking a bath on the deal, which is why we’re in the spot we’re in now: This is a giant game of chicken between Sternberg and everybody else, and nobody’s ready to give up now. Not even Manfred, who as is his wont tried to sound threatening and placating all at the same time, and ended up just sounding like a man who can’t make up his mind from sentence to sentence:
“We are still committed to the region and would like to see a solution,” Manfred said. “Certainly St. Petersburg is an alternative. It may be that there’s another opportunity on the Tampa side at some point in the process.
“We think the Tampa Bay region is a major-league market. And Mr. Sternberg continues to devote a lot of time and effort to getting a positive result for the region.”
The one thing that’s clear is that the rest of baseball’s owners would really really like the Rays (and the Oakland A’s) to decide what if anything they’re going to do about new stadiums, and soon, both to boost their revenues (hopefully, though if new-stadium smell comes with new-stadium debt it might not make a huge difference) and to clear the path to talk about raking in some sweet, sweet expansion fees from cities like Montreal that would no longer be needed to hold out as threats against Tampa Bay and Oakland. But as Manfred should know, you can’t hurry extortion — you just have to wait.