St. Pete mayor declares talks of new Rays stadium before 2028 “concluded,” but not talks before 2028 of new Rays stadium (read it again, you’ll get it)

Back six weeks ago when St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was saying it was no big deal if Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg wanted to look at moving his team before his lease expires at the end of 2027 — despite a lease clause explicitly prohibiting that — it looked like Kriseman was all set on playing good cop in the team’s stadium squabble, possibly with an eye toward getting hold of the land under the team’s current home of Tropicana Field. Now not so much, as Kriseman has declared that the Rays leaving before 2027 is something up with which he will not put:

Kriseman told city council members in a letter that negotiations over the Rays’ pitch to split the season between St. Petersburg and Montreal have concluded. The mayor added that team officials declined a new offer to renew the memo of understanding that would’ve allowed the team to explore a future full-time stadium in the Tampa Bay area — not just in St. Pete or Pinellas County.

Here’s the full letter from Kriseman, of which the key paragraphs are:

Negotiations between the City of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays Organization related to the ‘shared season’ concept have concluded. Both parties have agreed that the best path forward is to abide by the existing use agreement with the understanding that the agreement allows for the Rays Organization to explore post-2027 split or full season opportunities, both in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.
In accordance with the existing use agreement, should the Rays Organization wish to continue exploration of the shared season concept with Montreal, that exploration must be limited to the 2028 season and beyond.

Okay, so what does this all mean? The Rays’ lease prohibits the team’s owner from so much as talking to other cities about moving any home games out of St. Pete before 2028 — which would rule out the team moving to Tampa across the bay, or moving half its games to Montreal, or anything else that didn’t keep 100% of Rays home games in their current city. But it’s only the move that can’t happen before 2028, not the talks: Thanks to a late amendment to the Rays’ 1996 lease, Sternberg can talk all he want about new stadiums elsewhere, he just can’t do so with a goal of moving there before 2028.

Which, honestly, at this point is pretty unlikely anyway: Neither Tampa nor Montreal nor any other prospective Rays relocation city has anything close to a stadium plan in place, so when you add the time it would take to put financing together to the time it would take to build a whole new ballpark, you’re already about halfway to 2028. All Kriseman has done here is to say to Sternberg, “If you want a new stadium sooner than eight years from now, you’ll have to do so in St. Pete,” which honestly isn’t a terrible use of what leverage he has. (Assuming that keeping the Rays in St. Pete is really what’s best for St. Pete, which given the tremendous public subsidies Sternberg is looking for may not be the case at all.)

It also means that fears that this will immediately drive the Rays out of town — hey there, Tampa Bay Times sports columnist John Romano — are almost certainly overblown, because not allowing the team to leave town until 2028 doesn’t actually make it harder for the team to leave town. Sternberg will now almost certainly continue talks with Montreal and Tampa and anywhere else with an eye toward 2028, but will presumably continue them with St. Petersburg as well — unless he chooses to cut off Kriseman out of spite, which would be a dangerous thing to do in a game with only so many bidders. Sternberg’s calculus remains the same: Stay put in a metro area with a decent-sized media market but a crappy attendance record or relocate to a smaller market (or in Montreal’s case, another decent-sized market with its own historic attendance woes) and roll the dice that this will make you more money.

I expect that Sternberg’s decision, much like the MLB decision that stripped Montreal of the Expos in the first place in 2004, will ultimately have a lot to do with who offers the most lucrative stadium deal, which right now is “nobody.” This Kriseman gambit definitely makes things interesting, but I imagine it’s going to be years before we know how, or if, it affects the Rays’ ultimate fate.

St. Pete mayor says Rays owner asked about Montreal move before 2028, is maybe not world’s best negotiator

Yesterday was a no good, very bad day, but we can’t let that distract us from all the other no-goodness going on in the world. And yesterday that was news that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he’d received a “formal” request from Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to play half their home games in Montreal before the team’s use agreement allows it starting in 2028. Sort of, maybe?

On Wednesday, city policy chief Kevin King said the team has made a formal request to play home games in Montreal before 2027.

“Yes, long ago,” he said by phone, before deferring to the mayor.

Kriseman, shortly thereafter, initially would not confirm the team made a formal request, saying only that the Rays have “clearly expressed their desire to explore a split season with Montreal.”

Later in the conversation, the mayor confirmed the request met the “formal” threshold.

“I guess you could consider it to be…” the mayor said before trailing off. “It was much more specific so I guess you could consider it to be a formal request.”

Kriseman said the request was oral and that nothing has been put in writing. He said he couldn’t remember at what point the request went from “informal” to “formal.” Nor would he say what exactly the team asked for, or any concessions the team offered.

Many, many questions here! First off, since that use agreement explicitly forbids Sternberg from talking to anyone about playing home games outside St. Peterburg before 2028 (not, as previously thought, from talking to anyone before 2028 about playing home games outside St. Petersburg, thanks to a late amendment to the terms made way back in 1995), did Kriseman demand anything in return for Sternberg not shutting his trap about it immediately? Are the two sides in negotiation over this? And most important, where the hell would Sternberg be playing games, since his original Tampontreal Ex-Rays plan required building two new stadiums, one in Canada and one in Florida, and if they’re really going to be playing in them by 2024 as Sternberg says he wants, they really better get on that?

The obvious suspicion, of course, is — here, let’s let Shadow of the Stadium’s Noah Pransky say it, he’s earned the right to be the interpreter of Sternberg’s madness:

If it’s leverage, though, it’s leverage of a weird kind: Everyone knows that Sternberg can leave in 2028 for nothing, so making demands about leaving earlier when your lease says you can’t and you have nowhere to play then anyway is an oddly empty threat. I suppose getting the Montreal talk back in the headlines increases pressure on both Kriseman and Tampa stadium backers (and, for that matter, Montreal stadium backers) to take action on funding a stadium — since that’s something Kriseman has made clear he’s not interested in doing himself — but then why on earth is Kriseman the one leaking this news about the move request, and not indicating that he’d shot it down? Even if he secretly wants the Rays to leave his city so he can redevelop the Tropicana Field property, as some have suggested, isn’t making Sternberg’s arguments for him in the media pretty much the opposite of savvy negotiating?

Anyway, the Rays playing home games in two countries at once still makes no sense except as an idle threat, but given that we’ve seen sports team owners make incredibly dumb moves before just to show they’re willing to carry out idle threats, we can’t entirely rule it out as a possibility. This is the kind of story that calls for a robust sports media with a keen sense of how politics works to ferret out what’s really going on, and … like I said, it was a no good, very bad day.

Friday roundup: How Kansas City evicted a team for rent non-payment and ended up costing itself $1m, and other stories

This week’s recommended reading: Girl to City, Amy Rigby’s just-published memoir of the two decades that took her from newly arrived art student in 1970s New York to divorced single mom and creator of the acclaimed debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife. (Disclosure, I guess: I edited an early version of one chapter for the Village Voice last year.) I picked up my copy last week at the launch of Rigby’s fall book tour, and whether you love her music or her long-running blog (guilty as charged on both counts) or enjoy tales of CBGB-era proto-gentrifying New York or coming-of-age-stories about women balancing self-doubt and determination or just a perfectly turned punchline, I highly recommend it: Like her best songs, it made me laugh and cry and think, often at the same time, and that’s all I can ask for in great art.

But first, read this news roundup post, because man, is there a lot of news to be rounded up:

Friday roundup: Team owners rework tax bills and leases, Twins CEO claims team is winning (?) thanks to new stadium, and other privileges of the very rich

Tons more stadium and arena news to get to this week, so let’s dive right in without preamble:

New Tampa mayor wants to reopen Rays stadium talks, not cost herself any money, this should go great

New Tampa mayor Jane Castor attended the Tampa Bay Raysnot-quite-sold-out Game 4 of their Division Series on Tuesday night, and as she said when she was elected in April, was very enthusiastic about building the Rays a stadium in her city:

“I really feel like we should probably maybe just start over again,” Castor said as she greeted people behind home plate at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. “Everybody just come back to the table and start over again. Finding out what the Rays want and need, and then which community can best fulfill those needs.”

We already know what Rays owner Stuart Sternberg wants and needs, and it’s somebody to build him a $900 million stadium without him having to pay much toward it. That’s what crashed and burned last December, after Hillsborough County proposed going halfsies on a stadium but without even really having the money identified to do that; going back to the table and starting over again is a nice idea, but it still leaves everyone staring at a table with a “place $900 million here” sign.

And, because why be an elected official if you can’t promise all things to all people, Castor added this:

“If a decision was made to build a stadium in Tampa, I have said from the beginning that taxpayer dollars would not be used to build a new stadium, and I stand by that,” Castor said. “There are many ways to get a stadium built.”

I mean, not really? There is only one way to get a stadium built, and that is by paying a construction company to build a stadium, which requires somebody writing a check. Sternberg has made very clear that he is not going to be the one to write the largest check — if he’d wanted to do that, he could have built a stadium four or five times over by now — so if taxpayer dollars won’t be involved, then that leaves, I guess, a GoFundMe?

The other possibility, of course, is that Castor intends to use taxpayer dollars, but taxpayer dollars that she can pretend aren’t taxpayer dollars: free land grants, property tax breaks, tax increment financing districts that funnel only “new” taxes to the stadium, etc. Or maybe she thinks that telling Sternberg, “You can have your stadium, but you have to pay for it” will work better now than it did the past few years? Either way, she’s coming off as either naive or disingenuous, which is not a great start for the next round of Tampa stadium talks.

St. Pete may have traded Rays “don’t talk about moving” guarantee for a ticket fee it’ll never collect

Yesterday I noted that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman had unexpectedly granted Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg the right to negotiate with Tampa about a new stadium, several months after declining to declare Sternberg in violation of his use agreement with St. Pete when he openly discussed the possibility of playing home games in Montreal. Since it’s been widely reported that the Rays’ agreement forbids even mentioning the idea of a move until 2027, I noted that this seemed like a big concession for Kriseman to grant in exchange for nothing, but Rays stadium reporter extraordinaire Noah Pransky set me straight:

This seemed wrong to me, so after some back and forth with Pransky on Twitter, I checked out the use agreement itself, which says:

That’s pretty cut and dried: During the term of the agreement (i.e., through 2027), the club can’t engage in any negotiations to play home games anywhere other than the Trop. It says nothing about allowing negotiations now to move the team in 2028 or later. (Section 2.04 doesn’t either, before you ask.)

Except! There have been a series of amendments to the use agreement, some before the Rays even moved in in 1998. And one of those, the Second Amendment signed on May 18, 1995, says this:

You’ll notice that this just inserts the clause “to be played during Term.” Which effectively created a loophole: Rays execs can talk to other cities about moving there, but they must limit their talks to being about a move after 2027.

What did St. Pete get in exchange for this 24-year-old concession? The only obvious item in the Second Amendment that was a concession to the city is an increase in the city’s fee for tickets sold over 3.3 million per year, from 25 cents per ticket to 50 cents per ticket. Which amounts to a value of, let’s see, absolutely nothing because the Rays have never come close to drawing 3.3 million fans, and in fact since the seating at the Trop was reduced in 2007, couldn’t draw 3.3 million fans now even if they sold out the entire season.

In other words, unless there was something else going on around that 1995 negotiating table other than the changes we can see in the resulting amendment, St. Petersburg is now stuck with eight years of Sternberg being able to talk all he wants about hightailing it out of town in 2028, all because somebody back then thought it would be nice to collect some extra cash from tickets that will never, ever be sold. (Or, more likely, then-Rays owner Vince Naimoli noticed that he’d signed an extra-restrictive no-relocation-talks clause, and asked the city nicely to revise it, and the city said, Sure, give us some worthless trinket in exchange.) That’s probably not the worst example of someone getting fleeced by the Rays, but it’s still not great.

Rays sell out home game and get permission for Tampa stadium talks, it’s bizarro week

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!

A’s, Rays celebrate Wild Card game with dueling move threats by proxy

The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays faced off in the American League Wild Card game last night, before a sold-out crowd at Oakland Coliseum who paid an average of $129 for tickets on the resale market. One might think this would make it harder for the teams’ owners to claim that they’re doomed to failure on and off the field without the new stadiums they’re seeking — which means it’s time to pull out everybody’s favorite entry in the stadium-grubbers’ playbook, the oblique move threat:

Now, you will notice that neither of these threats came explicitly from the teams’ owners: A’s president and de facto stadium campaign spokesperson Dave Kaval limited himself to saying he was “surprised” by the city lawsuit, while leaving the heavy threatmongering to Manfred. And Sternberg insisted that he wasn’t the one who revealed that he bought Wild Card game tickets for Bronfman (they wouldn’t be sitting together, he said), but rather a member of Bronfman’s executive team who tweeted about it.

Still, sports team owners have a long track record of levying move threats by proxy, since it allows them all the leverage benefits while avoiding the nasty bits about being burned in effigy by outraged fans. It’s particularly unlikely that Manfred would be dropping threats in interviews without the explicit permission of A’s ownership, since the 30 MLB owners pay his salary; as for Bronfman, it’s possible that Sternberg said, “Here’s some tickets, now keep it under your hat that I paid for them, it would look really bad if people thought I did this just to rattle sabers about moving to Montreal during my team’s first postseason appearance in six years” and someone in Bronfman’s crew got Twitter-happy and ignored this, but somehow that doesn’t seem the most likely scenario.

Anyway, the Rays drove the A’s out of the playoffs with a pile of home runs, which means now we’ll get to see how attendance at Tampa Bay’s much-maligned stadium looks for games that really matter. Tickets for the A.L. Division Series vs. the Houston Astros go on sale today at 4 pm, and I for one will be as glued to the SeatGeek resale prices as to the start of the N.L. Division Series that’s happening at the same time.

Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news:

Friday roundup: Raleigh MLS project funding, Islanders’ train station costs, Flames arena talks are all ???

Happy Friday! If you’ve been wondering if Scott McCaughey’s excellent new album of songs written while in a hospital room recovering from a stroke can drown out the sound of poorly timed jackhammering by the gas company right outside your window, I’m here to report: Not nearly well enough!

Typing really loud so you can hear me over the din:

  • Raleigh residents are concerned that a development project centered on a new soccer stadium could price them out of living in the city. Also, there isn’t actually enough Wake County tax money available to pay for the project’s proposed $390 million public cost. And Raleigh doesn’t have an MLS team, or the promise of one. Other than that, this is going swimmingly.
  • Newsday has contradicted Long Island Business News’s report that New York state will pay “most” of the cost of a new $300 million train station for an Islanders arena at Belmont Park, saying that the actual cost is only $100 million and developers will pay most of it. Unnamed source fight!
  • Calgary city councillor Jeff Davison, who is spearheading behind-closed-doors talks with the Flames owners over a new arena, says, “We do not have a deal today, and when we will have one and if we will have one is totally up in the air. But what we can tell the public today is that discussions are productive but they’re not complete. We can’t give an exact date as to when we’ll be back with any information [but] I’m confident if we do bring a plan back, that the public will support it.” Pretty sure that translates as “Still talking, ask again later.”
  • Noah Pransky has been on a writing tear about the Tampa Bay Rays mess this week, including a review of an article he wrote in July 2009 predicting much of what has since come to pass and an analysis of how hotel-tax money that Tampa officials say can’t be spent for things like policing or libraries really can, because they could be used to free up general-fund money that’s currently spent on tourism-related expenses. “Where’s the study on best uses for that new money?” writes Pransky at Florida Politics. “How about just a best-use conversation, held out in the sunshine?” Crazy talk!
  • Speaking of tax money that could be spent on other things, Cuyahoga County is considering a 1% hotel tax hike to free up $4.6 million a year to spend on its convention center and sports venues, which in present value comes to about $70 million. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer article on this is entirely about how the bed tax hike would affect the hotel industry, because of course it is.)
  • “Could an NFL Stadium [for the Buffalo Bills] be Built on an Abandoned Coke Plant Property?” asks Erie News Now, boldly toying with Betteridge’s Law.
  • Worcester will break ground next Thursday on its new heavily subsidized Triple-A Red Sox stadium set to open at the beginning of the 2021 season, which, uh, isn’t a lot of time. They’d better hope that the climate crisis means a less stormy winter construction season in New England, which, uh, isn’t likely.