Rays owner mumbly on pursuing stadium in St. Pete, whispers something about moving in 2028

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg granted a long interview yesterday to his favorite mouthpiece Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, in which he said a lot of stuff about his failure to land a stadium deal in Hillsborough County (the Tampa side of the bay) before last December’s deadline, and the possibility of landing a stadium deal in Pinellas County (the St. Pete side) now. We can skip over most of it — “We’re not going to stand in the way of progress, and we want to be part of it” is an almost perfect English sentence devoid of semantic meaning — but there is this:

“I think the support part of it is much more important than the funding part, but the funding part is incredibly important,’’ he said. “If we had 30,000-35,000 walking through the door every night and we had naming rights and we had big sponsors, the funding would be a layup. But if we continue to have 8,000, 12,000, 15,000 a night and not expand our sponsorship roles, it could be all the funding in the world and it’s meaningless.’’

In other words, Sternberg is saying that if a new stadium were going to turn the Rays into, say, the Boston Red Sox or even the Washington Nationals, then he’d be happy to spend money on one. But building a new stadium just to have a new stadium doesn’t make any sense if it’s not going to generate any new revenues. Which, hey, is pretty much exactly the dilemma I spelled out last week in Deadspin, though Sternberg seems too have missed the corollary conclusions that Tampa might have this exact same problem, and that maybe building a new stadium isn’t really a “solution” to anything anyway and he should instead focus on how to get fans to games at his actually existing ballpark.

Sternberg also said he could have levied threats to try to get Tampa to offer more money toward a stadium but “that’s just not my style,” then dropped a threat — not quoted directly by Topkin, only paraphrased — that if there’s no stadium solution soon he’d have to start looking elsewhere for a new home once his lease expires after 2027. Speaking of rich-guy membership having its privileges, it sure must be nice to be able to say whatever you want in the sports pages whenever you want without fear of having your assertions questioned.

Cubs owners bankroll opponent to alderman they’re still mad at for denying them a bigger Jumbotron

If you were following the Chicago Cubs‘ battle over renovations to Wrigley Field a few years back, you’ll probably remember Tom Tunney, the alderman who squabbled with the team owners (and even himself) over the size of video boards and other minor issues. The Cubs’ owners sure remember him, because now they’re apparently trying to use their billions to get him thrown out of office:

Elizabeth Shydlowski, one of Tunney’s rivals in the Feb. 26 vote, is funded primarily by donations from Cubs management. The team also has clear links to a dark money group that in recent months has papered the ward with anti-Tunney mailers.

Regardless of what you think of Tunney — I, for one, haven’t followed his positions on more important issues than video board size, because it’s outside of the scope of this blog — that is some serious 800-pound-gorilla vengefulness to fund an entire campaign challenger just because you’re mad at someone who caused you minor headaches half a decade ago. Though the more we find out about the Ricketts family, the more that vengeance seems to be one of their defining motivations.

As for Shydlowski, she criticized Tunney for owning the Ann Sather’s restaurant chain — okay, Tunney’s other interests are outside the scope of this blog aside from his cinnamon rolls — and hence having to recuse himself from lots of council votes, which is pretty hilarious for someone who’s hoping to be responsible for lots of votes involving her main funder. She also chimed in on the “Joe Ricketts is a serial Islamophobic email forwarder” controversy, saying she disagreed with Ricketts’ statements but that she wouldn’t be returning his money, because voters only “care about not having rats in the streets.”

Anyway, this has been today’s reminder that the rich are very different from you and me: When they think their local elected official is a self-interested hack, instead of calling his office or writing a letter to the editor, they simply buy him an opponent. Next time any journalists ask me why local politicians are so eager to placate sports team owners, I’m just pointing them to this post and leaving it at that.

Sports team owners say the craziest things, Los Angeles Angels edition

Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno addressed his team’s lease situation in Anaheim yesterday, if by “addressed” you mean “said some mumbly nothings meant to both keep up the pressure on local officials while reassuring everyone that so long as they play along, nobody will get hurt”:

The Angels’ lease runs only through 2020, and the team would like the city to make some upgrades to the ballpark before they commit beyond that.

Moreno said the talks with new Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu have been “very positive, a lot of good communication.” In past years, Moreno had not spoken as optimistically about the team’s relationship with the city.

I’d love to try to more closely read that wan bundle of tea leaves, but it looks like the OC Register was the only news outlet to report on Moreno’s press conference, so that’s all we’ve got. And we already knew that Mayor Sidhu has been way more amenable to meeting Moreno’s demands than former mayor Tom Tait, so really this doesn’t tell us much new.

Instead, I’d like to focus on something else Moreno said, about spending on player payroll, which may sound innocuous at first but which is actually pretty bizarre if taken at face value:

Owner Arte Moreno said Monday that the Angels base their budget on their revenue.

“Typically for us, we allocate about 50 percent of our revenue towards payroll, but I bust through that every year,” Moreno said. “A small-market team would go about the same. Sometimes the larger market teams would only use 40 percent. Every year is a little different with your needs.”

If you’re a fan concerned that your home team is chintzing on signing good players, or a player concerned that your employer is trying to lowball you on salary, that “50 percent of revenue” line sounds good — the more money you make, the more you share the wealth with players and invest in new talent! As far as any kind of rational economic decision-making goes, though, it’s insane: Just because you’re bringing in more money doesn’t mean you should rush out and overspend on players just to not have cash burning a hole in your pocket; and just because you’re not bringing in more money doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out and spend more on players in the hope of winning more games, especially since that will bring in more money.

It’s not that it’s unusual — it’s the same logic companies use to meet revenue targets by cutting the employees who generate revenue, thus leading to a death spiral — and it’s the kind of bizarre logic there’s plenty of other evidence teams use in deciding how much to spend. And it’s not necessarily all bad, even, as the alternative is for owners to realize that how many games they win doesn’t have all that much effect on their bottom line, so might as well not try too hard to win at all.

But it’s still crazy, and should lend ammunition to anyone who would like to argue that if Moreno is deciding whether to give Albert Pujols way too much money to grow old and terrible based on how much cash he has lying around, maybe the Angels’ profitability shouldn’t be the city of Anaheim’s problem. Not that the Angels aren’t plenty profitable anyway — you know what, maybe the most insane part of all this is actually Moreno trying to demand stadium improvements as a condition of signing a lease to stay in the league’s second-largest market, as if he has any other real options. It’s so hard to tell with billionaires when they’re being crazy like a fox, and when they’re just being crazy.

Friday roundup: Neo-Expos seek public land for stadium, Hawaii mulls new stadium to host nothing, D-Backs spend bupkis fixing supposedly crumbling stadium

So very, very much news:

  • Would-be Montreal Expos reviver Stephen Bronfman has reportedly settled on federally owned land in Peel Basin near downtown as a prospective stadium site once a franchise is obtained, through expansion or relocation. Mayor Valérie Plante called the idea “interesting”; other than that, there’s been no word of what Bronfman would pay for the land or how the stadium would be paid for or really anything involving money, so sure, “interesting” is a fine evaluation of this news.
  • Charles Allen, the D.C. councilmember whose district includes RFK Stadium, calls the site “a very wrong choice for an NFL stadium,” and instead would like to see housing and parks there. Mayor Muriel Bowser disagrees, so this is going to come down to a good old council fight. Too bad Marion Barry isn’t around anymore to make things interesting.
  • Hawaii is considering spending $350 million in public money on a new football stadium to replace Aloha Stadium because, according to state senator Glenn Wakai, “It’s kind of like driving a Datsun pickup truck that is just being run into the ground. At a certain point, time to get a new pickup truck.” Given that Aloha Stadium currently hosts nothing much at all other than University of Hawaii football, it’s more like spending $350 million to replace your pickup truck that just sits in the driveway with a new pickup truck, but far be it from me to interfere with Sen. Wakai’s attempts to bash Datsun for some reason.
  • Halifax is still considering whether to spend $120-140 million on a stadium for an expansion CFL team, maybe via the magic of tax increment financing; University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe points out that a TIF isn’t magic but just “makes the subsidy less transparent, less obvious that it indeed even is a subsidy” — but then, pulling the wool over the public’s eyes is a kind of magic, no?
  • The Oakland Raiders have a “very real” chance of playing 2019 at the Oakland Coliseum, according to … this Bleacher Report headline, but nothing in the actual story? What the hell, Bleacher Report?
  • Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick has claimed that the team’s stadium would need $8 million in upgrades over the winter, but has only spent $150,000. Which isn’t totally a gotcha — team execs say they’re conserving the stadium maintenance fund to spend on future repairs — but it does poke a bit of a hole in their argument that the stadium is in such bad shape that MLB could order the Diamondbacks to leave Arizona.
  • Austin residents will get to vote in November on whether the city can give public land to a pro sports team owner without a public vote, but it’ll probably be too late to affect the deal to do that for Austin F.C. owner Anthony Precourt. It’ll come in handy next time Austin is in the market for a pro sports team, I guess, though then the owner will probably just figure out a different way to ask for subsidies. “Better late than never” doesn’t work that well when it comes to democracy.
  • Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he’s “not sure that there’s much space for public consultation” on a redevelopment project to include a Flames arena, though he added that “it would be very interesting to hear from the public on what they think the right amount of public participation in this should be, and certainly there will be an opportunity for the public to have their voices heard but it might not happen until there’s something on the table.” It’s hard to tell whether that’s a justification or an apology — and keep in mind that Nenshi was deliberately shut out of the committee negotiating any deal — but there you are.
  • MLS commissioner Don Garber just got a five-year extension, and — quelle coincidence! — the league is now talking about expanding to 32 teams by 2026. Whether this is really a Ponzi-esque attempt to paper over weak financials with a constant influx of expansion fees won’t be entirely clear until the expansion finally stops and we see how the money looks then, but one thing is increasingly clear: It’s kind of crazy to throw stadium money around in hopes of landing an MLS franchise when it’s increasingly clear every reasonably large city in the U.S. is going to get one sooner or later.
  • And finally, Amazon pulled out of its $3 billion tax break deal with New York yesterday, and it sounds like it’s because its execs were tired of taking a PR beating around the company’s anti-union stance and contracting for ICE. Some New Yorkers are celebrating victory, others are retreating into the Casino Night Fallacy, and as always, The Onion has the final word.

Maryland governor says he doesn’t want to build NFL stadium for Dan Snyder after all

Daniel Snyder’s plan to play off the three local governments in the D.C. area to extract land and money for a new stadium for his NFL team took another blow last night, as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he was stopping his pursuit of building a stadium on federal land south of D.C., at least “at this time”:

“We are not continuing discussions with the Redskins regarding this site at this time, however we are moving full steam ahead with acquiring state control of the Maryland Gateway in Prince George’s County from the federal government,” [Hogan’s communications director Amelia] Chasse wrote in response to an email from The Washington Post asking whether Hogan had withdrawn support of a new Redskins stadium in Maryland. “We believe this site holds significant potential benefits for the region and the state, as does the proposal to expand protected federal parkland in Western Maryland. We are working closely with our federal partners to finalize the transfer.”

Deadspin reported this as “Dan Snyder’s Sleazy Stadium Scheme Is Crumbling Around Him,” which is probably overly optimistic: Hogan can always resume negotiations with Snyder later, after he’s gotten control of the land, after all. But it is undeniably true that Snyder’s machinations haven’t gotten off to a whiz-bang start, what with his main backer on the D.C. council facing possible ethics charges and local officials in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia working on an interstate pact not to bid against each other, and now this. It only takes one win for a sports team owner to go home with a shiny new stadium, and this can take anywhere from months to a decade or more, but if you’re placing wagers on when Snyder’s team will be playing in a new home, I’d bet the over.

Report: Maybe Raiders can play 2019 in (rolls dice, looks at chart) Birmingham and Tucson?

Oh, man, do I want to believe this latest rumor about where the Oakland Raiders will play in 2019:

And that’s it! Burger is a “3x Emmy-nominated Sports Anchor/Reporter at (NBC),” Parker is a Birmingham city councilmember, and “an effort” just means that somebody is proposing it, so really, there is neither smoke nor fire here, at least not yet. Playing in college stadiums in two smallish non-NFL cities separated by 1600 miles while turning up your nose at similar options either in your current home or your future one makes zero sense, but it does make sense for Mark Davis to be shaking as many trees as possible as the date to set an NFL schedule looms, so why not? Though personally my money’s on (fires up GeoGuessr) … a dirt road just outside Chistopol, Tatarstan? Don’t say it couldn’t happen!

Rays’ attendance woes may not be solvable by anyone of woman born

I had a new article published at Deadspin yesterday, exploring the question of just why the Tampa Bay Rays punch so far below their weight in attendance despite playing in the United States’ 11th largest media market. Possible theories: People hate their stadium, people hate traveling across the bay to St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay region has too much competition for sports spending and too little mass transit, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has alienated fans, Florida overall has too many transplants who are fans of other teams and too many beaches to compete with sports tickets, and all of the above:

“It’s like a secret sauce—there’s a dash of bad ownership, there’s a dash of previous cities’ allegiances because it’s Florida and everyone moves here from somewhere else, there’s a dash of hard to get to,” says [St. Pete urban designer and Rays fan Josh] Frank.

The problem then becomes: How do you solve a problem that is really five problems at once? Building a new stadium in St. Pete is only a solution if what’s keeping fans away is the Tropicana Dome; moving the team to the Tampa side of the bay is only a solution if the problem is that nobody wants to drive to St. Pete; Sternberg selling the team is only a solution if personal antipathy to the way he’s run the team is turning fans off; and so on. And if it’s everything, that’s going to be hard to solve in one fell swoop, or maybe at all.

None of which is the Tampa Bay area’s problem, obviously: It’s Sternberg who has to figure out how to sell tickets (or, you know, not and live off his TV revenues, which should remain decent since Rays fans do watch games, they just don’t go to them). He could move otherwise, yes — in 2027 when his lease is up, anyway — but even then, unless one argues that the presence of an MLB team is worth enough to pave over the bay and build a new stadium in the middle of it, this still is a problem for the guy who bought the team, not for the city that he bought it in.

It is going to make for a very interesting runup to 2027, though, as Sternberg likely continues — possibly rightly — to turn up his nose at spending a lot of money on a new stadium because he doesn’t think it’ll pay off for him, while local governments — definitely rightly — say they don’t wanna pay for one neither, because where the Rays play, even if it’s Montreal, isn’t much skin off the region’s economic nose. The Rays stadium situation might just be a lose-lose scenario, then, where no option, including moving out of town, will vault the franchise into the middle range of MLB attendance, and revenues; that’s not the worst thing — somebody has to be at the bottom, after all — but it does mean that Rob Manfred could have a long wait before the Rays situation is “resolved” and he can start collecting those sweet, sweet expansion fees without fear of closing off potential Sternberg relocation threats.

Florida man proposes eliminating world’s most confusing sports subsidy slush fund

The history of Florida’s state-level sports subsidy program is a weird one: Back in 2014, the state legislature, tired of dealing with constant competing asks from all of the state’s sports owners, set up a ranking system for teams to request a cut of $12 million a year in sales tax money. The next year, the panel doing the ranking approved all of the applicants, which totally defeated the purpose because there wasn’t enough money in the sales tax pool to fund all of them; the year after that, the state was asked to fund three projects that were already underway regardless of whether they got the money. It’s such a mess that no money has ever actually been approved, which while kind of a silver lining if you believe the numbers showing that the state massively loses money on these subsidies.

Anyway, that all brings us to today, with some Florida legislators trying to just eliminate the sports subsidy program once and for all, and presumably reclaim the money for other uses:

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, with little comment Monday, backed the latest proposal (SB 414) by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, to repeal a controversial 2014 program that — despite never being used — lays out steps for the stadium money to become available.

“Should the Legislature decide at some point it did want to fund a particular facility for a particular purpose, the Legislature could always go back and do it the way they’ve always done it, and that is through a direct appropriation,” Lee said. “But to use this process as cover for an appropriation from this Legislature for a facility that can’t prove economic benefit, to me is just kind of a ruse.”

Lee noted that the first four applicants way back in 2015 — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Orlando S.C, and the Daytona International Speedway — all continued with their stadium projects even after the state rejected approving funding, which has “done the best job of anybody to make the point that these aren’t really economic development incentives,” since any economic development happened exactly the same even without the subsidies.

Of course, as Lee also noted, Florida can always approve stadium funds on a case-by-case basis, as it has done in the past. It’s hard to know what to think of this: Eliminating a stadium slush fund normally sounds positive, but if the sheer stupidity of the state funding process has dissuaded team owners from even asking for money … it’s a tough call. If I were a Florida state legislator, I’d probably call Stu Sternberg and ask what he thinks of the bill, and then vote the opposite.

MLB commissioner says Rays’ future is a new stadium in St. Pete, Rays owner says “meh”

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.

Friday roundup: Suns referendum campaign fails, Panthers owner floats roof, Inter Miami and Raiders both still need temporary homes

The stadium news does not care if I am having a busy week, it just keeps happening! And I am, as always, here to catch it in a bucket and dump it out for you: