Sternberg: I’ll pick stadium site as soon as cities decide how much money to offer me

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg says he’s all set to pick a new stadium site by the end of the year, as soon as he finds out what cities are willing to offer him to pick them:

The team is waiting for Hillsborough County officials “to completely weigh in” with a site and specifics of the project.

“When they do then we’ll be able to make a decision in a pretty quick time,” he said.

That makes it sound as if they already know what their Pinellas options are, but he said not quite.

“We have sites in mind, and it’s a question of what will get done around the site and how are they going to get paid for,” he said. “And once municipalities are able to line those things up, not completely buttoned up but at least to a good extent, then we’ll be able to make a decision.”

On the one hand, this is reasonable: You don’t want to pick a site if you don’t know, say, whether there will be enough highway access provided that fans can actually get to the game. On the other: Normal businesses of human scale that don’t have the entire back section of the paper dedicated to them usually figure out how to pay for stuff to “get done around the site” by going to their financial people and having them crunch the numbers, not by waiting for city officials to tell them what they’re willing to offer.

In short, this isn’t really much news — Sternberg didn’t even promise a site decision by the end of the year, just say it was his goal — but is a good reminder that the real issue here is less where Sternberg wants to put a new stadium, and more how he figures out a way to pay for it, which is almost certain to involve some kind of public subsidies. Stay tuned for any details of that, and pay no attention to anything else that might appear to be going on in the meantime.

Manfred tries to threaten to move Rays, A’s without new stadiums, trips over own tongue

Okay, I get it: Shilling for a new stadium for a team by dropping hints of a move threat is tricky business, and only made trickier when the team owner is trying to make nice with the local electeds in order to get a stadium deal done. Still, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred seemed to be getting better at threat-mongering after a dismal start, but this yesterday about the Tampa Bay Rays, oy:

“I continue to believe Tampa (Bay) is a viable major-league market, and I also believe it may be better than the alternatives than we have out there,” Manfred said. “I am hopeful we get to a resolution.”…

“There does come a point in time where we have to accept the reality that a market, for whatever set of reasons, can’t get to the point that they have a major-league quality facility, and I am not going to indefinitely leave a club in a market without a major-league quality facility.”…

“It really depends on progress, right? If there is a point in time where it starts to grind to a halt and nothing is happening. I don’t think we’re there. But at that point in time where everybody is panicking, you get this look of ‘Where we going next?’ That’s when you have to start thinking about what your alternatives are. It’s hard for me to be more definitive than that.”

I think we may need to just admit that Rob Manfred is not very good at this move threat thing (or maybe this speaking English thing). You’d think if Roger Goodell can manage this, anybody can, but clearly not — for which Rays and Oakland A’s fans should be grateful, I suppose, since they don’t have to wake up to “Manfred says [your team here] could move without new stadium” headlines today, largely because today’s 24/7 news cycle journalists don’t have time to parse statements like Manfreds to try to figure out what he’s threatening if anything.

Oh yeah, Manfred said the same sort of nothing about the A’s, too:

“Given the change in the control situation,” Manfred said, “I think it’s prudent and sufficient for Mr. Fisher to take a year and make a decision on what site he thinks is the best.

“That decision is a uniquely local decision. I really don’t believe that it’s my job to have a preference for those sites. They know their market better. They’ve kept me briefed. They’ve spent a heck of a lot more time analyzing the sites. They’re far more familiar with the political issues that might revolve around those sites and the environmental issues involved.”…

“I am not going to indefinitely leave a club in a market without a major-league-quality facility.”

You know, if he’d even just said this on the same day as his name-dropping of cities that could host MLB teams … sigh. Clearly I’m in the wrong line of work — should’ve gone into evil.

MLB commissioner mentions Charlotte’s name on the telly!

The last time prior to yesterday that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about possible future expansion, in May of last year, he said that “I would love to see us expand” and “my personal, sort of, frontrunner would be Montreal or Mexico City.”

Yesterday,  at his All-Star Game press conference, and said:

I think we have some great candidates. I know the mayor of Montreal has been very vocal about bringing baseball back to Montreal. It was not great when the Expos left. The fact of the matter was baseball was successful in Montreal for a very long time. Charlotte is a possibility. And I would like to think that Mexico City or some place in Mexico would be another possibility.

Notice the one thing that’s not like the other?

This isn’t actually the first time that Manfred has mentioned Charlotte as an expansion possibility — he did so back in 2015 as well, along with Portland — but in baseball Kremlinology, it’s de rigueur to interpret the hell out of every word out of the guy’s mouth, so let’s give it a shot. Maybe Charlotte has jumped to the head of the list in the last 14 months for some reason? (Probably not, but maybe Jerry Reinsdorf got a nice salad at the airport there or something.) Maybe the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s — who again were mentioned by Manfred as needing their stadium situations “resolved” (read: somebody to build them new ones, ideally with public money) before expansion can take place — wanted a city to use as a potential move threat that was actually in the Unites States? Maybe he was waiting for the North Carolina anti-transgender bathroom bill to be repealed and the sports boycotts to end? Maybe some reporter from a Charlotte news outlet was in the crowd, and Manfred just wanted to see them get all excited when he mentioned their city’s name?

Anyway, if you really care to think about where MLB might expand to eventually, here’s a nice piece from SI’s Jay Jaffe from last year running down all the potential candidates and their pros and cons. If it has to wait out a Rays stadium denouement in particular, don’t hold your breath for anything in the next couple of years, but sometime in the 2020s MLB expansion should be ready to go — assuming the Miami Marlins don’t need to relocate by then because they’re underwater.

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.

St. Pete mayor says “no bidding war” for Rays, as counties launch big ol’ bidding war

The minute that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman handed the Tampa Bay Rays the right to buy out their lease clause in St. Peterburg and seek a new stadium elsewhere in the local area, it was clear that team owner Stuart Sternberg would be seeking to set up a bidding war between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties over who’d get to throw public money at the team. And how’s that going? Really well, reports Shadow of the Stadium, if you’re Sternberg, with Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan most recently setting up meetings with his county’s bankers to discuss stadium financing, in addition to helping the team narrow down a site.

Kriseman, for his part, seems shocked, shocked that a local sports baron would try to play off two governmental bodies against each other just because you told him he could:

“When we start getting into detailed conversations about financing,” Kriseman said, “what we set ourselves up for is a bidding war, and then the taxpayers are the losers when that happens.”

Yep, that’s the way it works! Kriseman seems to want Sternberg to settle on a site first, then talk about funding plans once all his leverage is gone, which is not how savvy negotiators operate. One way of getting around this would be for the two counties to team up and tell the Rays owner, “We’re not going to bid against each other, pick a site and then we’ll talk” — or even “Hey, go try to hit up the other county for money if you want, all the better if we get to watch games and somebody else gets stuck with the cost.” But that’s not how unsavvy negotiators operate.

Manfred drops R-word regarding Rays, sports world fails to freak out

I’ve picked on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred before for being really bad at levying relocation threats in order to shake loose stadium subsidies, one of the two main jobs of a sports commissioner. (The other, of course, is levying lockout threats in order to shake loose union concessions.) But maybe, just maybe, Manfred is starting to get the hang of it. When asked about the Tampa Bay Rays‘ stadium situation:

Manfred, during a Q-and-A session at the George Washington University School of Business, did not set any deadlines or issue any ultimatums, but said that at some point if there is no progress the potential of relocation would have to be raised…

“Ultimately, there has to be an end game. If in fact, there’s not a site or there’s not a financial arrangement that’s viable and we become convinced of that, our rules allow for the possibility of relocation.
“At that point of desperation, it’s possible a team would be allowed to relocate.”

That’s a little passive-voice, but not too bad otherwise! The real test, though, is whether it led to a flurry of frantic headlines about how Manfred is threatening to move the Rays if they don’t get a new stadium, stat:

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-8-44-10-amWell, then. Maybe he should try speaking more from the diaphragm? I hear that helps.

Rays owner conducted study of moving to Montreal, says a guy

So on Sunday, this happened:

Sérieux!

For those of you who ne parlent pas français:

Serious! Stewart Sternberg, owner of the Tampa Bay Rays RECENTLY funded a study of viability of a stadium in Griffintown. Sternberg is the main shareholder (48%) of the Rays he wishes to move and not sell and Mtl, is top of the list. Griffintown would be the ideal site. It’s two small steps from downtown.

According to Patrice Derome (hi, Patrice!), Trudel — whose Twitter bio describes him as a “journaliste et commentateur sportif sans attache,” which is exactly what it sounds like — subsequently went on the radio and said that the study was conducted a few months back. What the study consisted of, and what it found, I couldn’t tell you.

I’d be tempted to say this is just Sternberg trying to throw a scare into Tampa Bay area cities, except that if so, you’d think he’d have leaked it to a journalist avec attache, at least. Though since, as Noah Pransky notes at Shadow of the Stadium, this would potentially be a violation of the Rays lease clause that only allows Sternberg to look at alternate stadium sites within the bay area, maybe he had to go super-stealth mode on this? Or maybe he’s really considering moving the team to Montreal, or doing due diligence to see how expensive a Tampa Bay stadium would have to be before it would be worth his while to move, or just wanted an excuse to try some of those funny bagels. We’re deep, deep into speculation here, so please no freaking out and/or getting to excited just yet, especially since the Rays can’t leave Tampa Bay until 2027 regardless, at which point the onrushing death of cable will likely have made the sports business market unrecognizable anyway.

The Rays, for their part, promptly said nothing at all:

Hillsborough candidates agree: Tax somebody to pay for Rays stadium, just not sure who

The invaluable Noah Pransky of WTSP-TV (and the Shadow of the Stadium blog) has polled candidates for the Hillsborough County commission (that’s the county with Tampa in it) on where they stand on public funding for a new Rays stadium, and the survey says:

Sandy Murman (District 1 incumbent): Opposed to “a sales tax increase or use of general revenue” for a stadium, but not necessarily opposed to other forms of public funding.

Jeff Zampitella (District 1 challenger): Opposed to using general revenues, fine with hotel taxes, sales taxes, property tax breaks, or pretty much anything else.

Les Miller (District 3 incumbent, not being challenged): “We have to figure out a way to pay for it and not ask taxpayers to pay for a new stadium.”

Jim Norman (District 6 incumbent): Wouldn’t answer, but “has a long record of supporting stadium subsidies for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

Tim Schock (District 6 challenger): Would likely support hotel taxes only for a stadium, wants the state to be on the hook for anything else.

John Dicks (District 6 challenger): Supports using both hotel taxes and a Community Redevelopment Area, which is essentially a TIF-style property tax kickback. Plus state money.

Pat Kemp (District 6 challenger): Would “likely oppose” general fund spending, but “might support” TIF money or parking revenues.

Tom Scott (District 6 challenger): Yes to using hotel taxes, no to anything else.

Brian Willis (District 6 challenger): Yes to hotel taxes, rental car fees, and state money, so long as it’s no more than half the total stadium cost.

Add it all up and hotel tax money sounds like a consensus pick — which would better news for Rays owner Stuart Sternberg if not for the fact that best estimates are that these would only be enough to pay off maybe $75 million in construction costs, which isn’t going to get very far toward building a whole new stadium. This sounds like it’s going to be one of those “collect pails of money from wherever you can find them” negotiations, which usually end up resorting to something totally crazy because it’s the only option that nobody outright hates.

It’s still very early, but all the “we have to get something done, we just need to figure out how to pay for it” talk is not a good starting point at all if you’re concerned about public subsidies. Add in that this is inevitably shaping up to be a Tampa-vs.-St. Petersburg bidding war — or at least a Hillsborough-vs.-Pinellas County bidding war — and it’s probably time to be very worried indeed. Winning the right to pit different localities against each other for the right to throw money at his team may have been the best deal that Sternberg ever made; St. Peterburg really should have asked for a bigger buyout, but they didn’t ask me, now did they?

Rays start crowdsourcing stadium ideas, so long as they’re ideas they already want

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is clearly in the “building momentum” part of his new-stadium campaign: After making a nearly endless list of possible stadium sites (without discussing yet how any of them would be paid for, because that gets people thinking about price, and you always want to avoid that as long as possible), Rays execs have now launched a website called ballparkreimagined.com where fans can chime in on what they want to see in a new stadium.

The site offers two places to enter your comments, the first being the prompt “I imagine…” and room to write anything you want. Among the featured comments are “I Imagine An Intimate, Waterfront Ballpark That Will Be Here For Years To Come” and “I Imagine A Retractable Dome Because Of The Unpredictable Summer Weather,” which leads me to believe that the comments are being edited heavily, both to ensure that everyone uses proper initial-caps style and to edit out “I Imagine DEEZ NUTS.”

The second poll is a multiple-choice one: “What words describe the ballpark you imagine?” The options are:

  • Year-round
  • Intimate
  • Organic
  • Breathtaking
  • Welcoming
  • Cutting-edge
  • Icon
  • Seamless

Leaving aside that this sounds like a list of rejected Divergent factions, you’ll note that they’re all characteristics that a team owner would stress in their marketing materials — there’s no “Privately funded” or “Easy to get to” or “Affordable tickets” on the list. (Yeah, I know “Affordable tickets” isn’t an adjective, but neither is “Icon.”) And sorry, no write-in adjectives allowed.

Ultimately, this is a website-as-push-poll, where in the guise of soliciting fan opinion, the Rays ownership is selling how totally awesome it would be to have a new breathtaking, cutting-edge stadium. They might even eventually incorporate a couple of fan-submitted ideas — judging from the video on the site, something including a place to play catch on the beach, and a barbershop where you can get a Rays-colored mohawk — but the real point of this is what they’re selling you, not what you’re telling them.

Rays stadium site could come down to which county will throw more public money at it

Another possible Tampa Bay Rays stadium site has been added to the long list being explored by Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which I suppose is news if you’re keeping score at home. This one is in St. Petersburg on the bay near the Gandy Bridge to Tampa, and it’s in a flood zone and would need lots of water and sewer lines run and road improvements, but here, let the Tampa Bay Times explain why they think it’s promising:

At 39 acres, it’s large enough for a stadium and all the extras the Rays envision. It’s owned by a local couple who wants to sell, which could simplify negotiations. The nearby roads are already slated for substantial improvements, easing access to the somewhat isolated property. It’s a natural stop for the proposed Tampa to St. Petersburg ferry, if that initiative ever materializes. It’s also in a county that has already reserved bed tax money for a new ballpark.

Wait, say that last part again? Pinellas County has set aside hotel tax money for a new Rays stadium? When did that happen? (Scrolls through list of Rays posts, Googles.) Okay, there’s this from one year ago:

Pinellas County commissioners agreed Tuesday to add a sixth cent to the so-called tourist bed tax but now have to decide what to do with the money.

The increased tax on nightly hotel stays takes effect Jan. 1 and will add about $7 million a year to the county’s tourist tax collections. In addition, another $7 million will be available after the bonds used to build Tropicana Field are paid off in September.

That’s not exactly “reserved,” especially since there are other projects that would like to use the same tax money, but it is “available,” I suppose. The Times appears to be moving the goalposts a little, though, to where the $14 million is considered set aside for the Rays. That would be enough to pay off maybe $200 million or so in construction costs, which while it would still leave a long way to go towards full funding, would be an awfully nice start for Rays owner Stuart Sternberg — and a rather large chunk of change for Pinellas residents to dedicate to a private baseball stadium, especially when the team is almost certainly going to stay in the metro area regardless.

Either way, it seems like Sternberg is playing this exactly right in terms of maximizing his leverage: By considering every site under the sun, he can get Tampa, St. Pete, and the two counties bidding against each other, and right now Pinellas’ advantage is that it has more available hotel tax money to burn than Hillsborough. Whether you consider getting a stadium on your side of the bay by throwing more public money at it “winning” is another story entirely.