The Tampa Bay Rays won their first home postseason game in six years yesterday, but the headlines were that they also sold out their stadium for the first time in recent memory. They’ll try to make it two straight at tonight’s ALDS Game 4, with just a few hundred tickets remaining as of this writing.
All of which is good news for the potential viability of the team in its current home — despite the long drive across the bridge from Tampa, the talking down of the stadium by owner Stuart Sternberg, the general weakness of the Florida sports market, and all the other reasons why the Rays haven’t drawn well of late. So, naturally, team execs are celebrating by again trying to get a new stadium built in Tampa:
On Friday, Kevin King, St. Petersburg’s chief of policy and public engagement, confirmed that the city has no objection if Hillsborough and Tampa want to try again to persuade the Rays to move across the bay after 2027, according to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.
This is more than a little odd and unexpected, given all the hullabaloo last December when Sternberg’s option to pursue a stadium in Hillsborough County expired, leaving him stuck with his lease through 2027 that prohibits even speaking to other locations than St. Petersburg about a new stadium. And sure, Sternberg has been decidedly uninterested in pursuing a St. Pete stadium, but from St. Pete’s perspective, why give up your leverage when you don’t have to?
What changed, apparently, is that St. Peterburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was sick of being asked if he was standing in the way of a new stadium in Tampa:
Merrill called King on Friday for an explanation after Times reporters informed him that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is disputing the notion that he is blocking Hillsborough from negotiating with the Rays…
On Wednesday, Kriseman was asked by a Times reporter why Tampa couldn’t talk to the Rays if Montreal could. The mayor declined to address the question.
“I’m here for the game,” he said repeatedly, while guest-bartending at a downtown St. Petersburg tavern as the Rays played the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game.
Now, there are reasons why Kriseman might actually want to see the Rays move to Tampa: St. Petersburg would get to redevelop its current stadium site, the Rays would stay in the area, and Tampa taxpayers would be on the hook for any public stadium costs. (On the downside, St. Pete residents would now have to drive across the bridge to get to games, and there would be some loss in tax revenue from Rays spending taking place across the bay, but probably not enough to offset the gains from getting the land back.) Still, this was a surprising concession from Kriseman without asking for anything in return.
What seems to have happened here is that Sternberg’s Tampontreal Ex-Rays gambit worked — not in that anybody is particularly taking seriously the possibility of a team playing home games in two countries at once, but in that by going and negotiating with Montreal officials and saying “Go ahead, try to stop me,” he established a precedent that he can carry out stadium talks regardless of what his lease says, so why shouldn’t he get to talk to Tampa, too? Or at least enough to get Kriseman to say, Fine, if he really wants to move to Tampa, I’m not going to be the one standing in his way, now please go away and let me watch the game.
All of which may not immediately help Sternberg all that much: He’s still facing a massive budget shortfall for any Hillsborough County stadium, so getting to resume talks about how neither side is ready to spend more isn’t likely to get anything done immediately. Still, he’s successfully escaped the corner he had painted himself into, without even the mild concessions he agreed to the last time he got an opt-out clause, just by hanging out a bunch with his new Montreal pal Stephen Bronfman. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!