St. Pete council calls Rays’ bluff, rejects lease buyout unless team coughs up development rights

If yesterday’s news had you thinking that city councils were just mindless automatons who would inevitably rubber-stamp any stadium deal set before them, then the St. Petersburg city council had a surprise for you: That body voted 5-3 yesterday afternoon to reject the proposed deal in which the Tampa Bay Rays could buy their way out of their Tropicana Field lease to move to a new stadium elsewhere in the bay area for a payment of at most $42 million.

Given that as recently as a week ago, all signs were that the council was going to approve the plan that Mayor Rick Kriseman had worked out with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, this was a bit of a shocker. But according to the Tampa Bay Times, Rays execs shot themselves in the foot with their answer to questions about whether the team would agree to forgo a split of profits from development of land on the 85-acre Tropicana Field site if they were in the process of leaving anyway:

Council member Darden Rice, who voted for the agreement, said the Rays blew the deal with their presentation.

“I think at one point we had five votes,” Rice said. “But I was very disappointed by Auld’s response to Karl Nurse’s question about development rights. It was either tone deafness or arrogance.”…

Nurse had asked Kriseman earlier in the week to change the agreement so the city could retain all development rights in that situation. But the Rays declined to make any substantive changes to Kriseman’s deal.

Nurse still voted for the deal in the end, but this did not go over well with several other members of the council:

[Councilmember Bill] Dudley said he felt like the Rays were making ultimatums. “I don’t like arrogance,” he said.

“The deal breaker for me was the idea that they want us to abide by the use agreement for redevelopment purposes, where they can benefit,” [councilmember Amy] Foster said, “but they didn’t want to abide by the use agreement” by staying at the Trop.

“This is a common strategy,” she said. “They use their mobility in order to threaten cities in order to get more.”

Yep, that they do. But in most cases they don’t have an ironclad lease like the one that the Rays are locked into in St. Pete, which currently doesn’t allow the team owners to buy their way out, or even talk about leaving, until 2027. That’s a hefty piece of leverage that the council has at its disposal, and they just used it.

For Sternberg, the logical next step in this situation is to haggle: If the council wants a bigger share of development rights, throw them a bigger share of development rights. Or kick in an extra million or two a year in lease-breaking payments. But it seems like the council isn’t opposed to the principle of the deal, just the specifics, so the usual strategy would be to pick off a couple of councilmembers and find out what their price is.

Sternberg, however, has already declared that he won’t negotiate any more changes to the lease buyout, saying last week, “If it doesn’t pass, we’re doomed to leave.” This kind of paints him into a corner, with his only obvious options being:

  • Try to pretend he never said anything about no further negotiations, and quietly resume talks in a few months. This would not only require swallowing a lot of pride at this point, but also leave him with a weakened negotiating position, since clearly his ultimatums wouldn’t be worth squat.
  • Sit tight and wait — if not 13 years, then at least for a new city council to be elected next fall. And then hope like crazy that the new folks are more willing to give you anything you want.
  • Sell the team and make it someone else’s problem. Forbes, which tends to underestimate team values, has the Rays worth $485 million, which would be a nifty 142% profit on what Sternberg bought them for in 2002. But presumably the Rays would be worth an awful lot more if they had a shiny new stadium to play in (especially if the shiny new stadium debt could be fobbed off on taxpayers), so Sternberg would be leaving a lot of hypothetical money on the hypothetical table if he took this route.
  • Call Bud Selig and ask him to threaten to blow up the team on his way out the door, and hope that the courts will protect them from the inevitable antitrust lawsuit that would result.

So far, the Rays have just responded with a generic “You’re a bunch of poopyheads” statement:

There’s still plenty of time — until 2027, really — for a deal to be worked out, so there’s no reason to start freaking out about the Rays moving to Montréal (unless you’re the Tampa Bay Times editorial board). The St. Peterburg council did send a message, though, that they’re at least aware that, as Jonah Keri puts it:

Public officials trying to negotiate better deals in the public interest. What’ll they think of next?

Rays vote pushed back, time of reckoning for how the hell to actually pay for stadium delayed one week

The St. Petersburg city council has pushed its vote on the Tampa Bay Rays lease modification back to next week, so that members can actually read the thing. Mayor Rick Kriseman readily agreed to the delay, as did Rays execs, so it looks like the Rays won’t be threatening to move to Montréal in the next week or anything. Things could change if the council tries to put up a fight, but it sounds like this is less a resistance move than just a “hang on, we need to find our reading glasses.”

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Noah Pransky has taken a look at what’s going to be the more important question going forward, which is how on earth to actually pay for a new stadium, whether it’s on the St. Pete side of the bay or the Tampa side. Pransky notes that the two cities’ chambers of commerce estimated back in 2012 that a stadium would take $300 million to $400 million in public money, and floated a bunch of different ideas for raising it: extend a sales tax surcharge for infrastructure improvements and redirect it to the stadium, raise the car rental tax, raise the hotel tax (note: possibly illegal under state law), kick back property taxes through a TIF district, kick back the local share of state sales taxes. Taken together these could certainly raise $400 million, but they’re also all money that could be used for other things, and once you spend it on a stadium, it’s gone.

So really it’s going to still come down to whether any government body in the Tampa region feels like handing over $300-400 million to the owner of the local baseball team, regardless of what particular tax revenue stream is allocated to it. Recent indications have not been positive, but the new agreement would give the Rays two years to announce an opt-out date from their Tropicana Field lease, which is … not plenty of time, but some time, anyway. Maybe someone will stumble upon a foolproof way to raise money before then.

Rays owner: If no new stadium, I’ll find a guy to take the team and go home with it, in 2027, yeah!

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg celebrated his new agreement with the city of St. Petersburg to allow him to pursue a new stadium across the bay in Hillsborough County yesterday in the way that only sports team owners can: By threatening that if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll find an imaginary person to move the team out of town.

“I’m not moving this team. I’m not taking this team out of the area. But that’s me,” Sternberg said at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego.

“The chances of me owning this team in 2023 if we don’t have a new stadium are probably nil. Somebody else will take it and move it. It’s not a threat, just the reality.”…

Sternberg said he didn’t know exactly what they would do if the agreement is not approved by the council, but he certainly sounded discouraged by the prospects, adding that it could lead to the team leaving the market.

“If it doesn’t pass, we’re doomed to leave …” he said.

Sternberg has made threats like this before, mind you, but he at least then usually painted MLB officials as the bad guys wanting the team out of Tampa Bay. Blaming a hypothetical future Rays owner who doesn’t even exist yet isn’t quite a second-ever sighting of the ghost threat, but it’s still kind of impressive, given that he single-handedly managed to turn a day when people actually felt good about the Rays stadium situation (largely because nobody had yet thought much about the price tag, but hey, allow people their moments) into a hostage crisis in the course of a few hours.

Before anyone gets too excited about the Rays moving to Montréal on Friday if the council doesn’t approve this deal (whoops, too late!), keep in mind that the Rays are bound by their lease to stay at Tropicana Field through 2027, something Sternberg himself has acknowledged. Plus, if the new agreement isn’t approved by the council tomorrow, Sternberg (or whoever he sells the team to) can’t even talk to anyone outside of St. Pete about a new stadium — and even if it is approved, the Rays owner still can’t talk to anyone outside Tampa Bay before the lease is up.

So it’s a pretty idle non-threat threat, but when it’s the only arrow in your quiver, I guess you’ve got to run with it. Why the sports media is running with it too is a different question, but they have a long history of this stuff, too.

St. Pete mayor agrees to max $42m payment from Rays for leaving town early

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has scheduled a 10 am news conference today to announce his agreement on a lease amendment to allow Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to explore sites in Hillsborough County (which is where Tampa is, not where St. Pete is) for a new stadium. In exchange for letting the Rays out of the “can’t even think about a new stadium” clause of their lease, St. Petersburg would receive:

Payments would be based on how many years remain on the Trop lease if the Rays leave, starting at $4 million a season until December 2018, dropping to $3 million a season from 2019 to 2022 and $2 million from 2023 through 2026.

The Rays would have to make any remaining bond payments on the Trop, about $2 million a year. The city would cover demolition expenses.

(That’s from the Tampa Bay Times. You can read the full MOU here.)

So wait, St. Petersburg wouldn’t get any actual “exploratory fee” out of the deal immediately, just money if the Rays end up leaving before their lease is up? Since the earliest the team could possibly get a new Hillsborough stadium open would have to be the 2018 season, by my count that means a maximum of $24 million that Sternberg would have to pay to leave St. Pete early, plus $18 million in remaining bond payments.

Given that the Rays would have had to pay to break their lease regardless, on top of paying to get out of the no-looking-elsewhere deal, this seems awfully generous of Kriseman; Shadow of the Stadium’s Noah Pransky speculates that the mayor “must have felt his leverage was limited and the benefit of securing a deal now outweighed the risk of continued negotiation,” which sounds a lot like the reasoning being used to defend Billy Beane’s winter of trading everything not nailed down for a bucket of spare parts.

There is some upside to this deal for St. Petersburg: By making the Rays Tampa’s problem and potentially freeing up the land under Tropicana Field for development that’s active more than 81 days a year (giving Rays games the benefit of the doubt for being considered “activity”), it should more than offset any losses to the city from not having Rays fans drive across the bridge and buy hot dogs each summer. The question is more whether Kriseman, given Sternberg’s desperation to flee across the bay, got the best deal he could have swung — though given that Pransky reports that the St. Pete city council is  ready to rubber-stamp this on Thursday, it sounds like everyone concerned feels like they just want to arrange a payout now, and sit back and let Hillsborough County fight about this from now on.

Pransky will be live-tweeting the press conference starting at 10 am Eastern, so follow him there for further updates.

Tampa homeless charity CEO on unpaid sports concessions labor: Who you gonna believe, “former addicts” or him?

The Tampa Bay unpaid homeless labor scandal fallout continues to fall out this week, with Hillsborough County officials calling for a federal investigation, the Rays and concessionaire Centerplate launching their own probe, and the Lightning saying hey, don’t blame them, they stopped using these guys in 2013 due to “reliability and consistency concerns.” (Though not “violating labor law” concerns, I guess.)

The charity at the center of the charges, meanwhile, New Beginnings, has responded with its own press release, and it is hi-larious. For starters:

“We don’t use homeless or the clients than are in our Emergency Shelter for sporting events”.

Assuming that “than” is a typo for “that,” this at first sounds like the dozens of homeless New Beginnings clients who the Tampa Bay Times witnessed lining up to work concessions at a Buccaneers game must have been imaginary. The key here, though, is that phrase “in our Emergency Shelter” — New Beginnings does use its clients to run sports concessions, it just does so with those in its “work therapy” program, where homeless people learn how to re-enter the work world by working and not getting paid for it! (Which, come to think of it, probably is a good acclimation to the work world these days.)

New Beginnings also posted a link to a softball radio interview with New Beginnings CEO Tom Atchison on a Christian radio station, in which he denied all the charges, mostly by saying, “Are you kidding me? Stop this nonsense!” Then he said this:

“Can you imagine using somebody that’s homeless off the street to cash out a register and serve hot dogs? They’d be eating the hot dogs, stealing the beer, taking the money out of the register, and running down the street!”

Your homelessness charity director, people!

Atchison went on to blame disgruntled ex-employees and “a few former addicts that are telling him how horrible we are” for the negative press coverage, without actually contesting the central point of the Times article, which is that New Beginnings is pimping out its homeless clients to Tampa Bay sports teams, not paying them anything beyond their food and shelter, and pocketing any proceeds. Instead, he appears to be falling back on the defense that he’s a good Christian, so why are you picking on him, already?

On first blush it will appear that New Beginnings is a horrible agency, but after the dust has settled the truth about the great work we do will prevail. We at New Beginnings feel like we are under attack by the powers of darkness, but God is at our side to walk us through this.

God better have one heck of a labor lawyer.

Concessionaire using unpaid homeless workers at Tampa sports venues, possibly illegally

And finally, this one really needed to run sometime other than Thanksgiving weekend:

Before every Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game, dozens of men gather in the yard at New Beginnings of Tampa, one of the city’s largest homeless programs.

The men — many of them recovering alcoholics and drug addicts — are about to work a concessions stand behind Raymond James Stadium’s iconic pirate ship, serving beer and food to football fans. First, a supervisor for New Beginnings tries to pump them up.

“Thank God we have these events,” he tells them. “They bring in the prime finances.”

But not for the workers. They leave the game sweat-soaked and as penniless as they arrived. The money for their labor goes to New Beginnings. The men receive only shelter and food.

That’s right: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (as well as the Rays and Lightning) have been using indentured servants to run their concessions. (Okay, not quite indentured servants, since these workers can — and do — quit their unpaid jobs and give up their shelter, but still pretty close.) That’s probably a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act — New Beginnings CEO Tom Atchison says the program is modeled on one used by the Salvation Army, but the Salvation Army doesn’t pimp its unpaid workers out to for-profit sports teams to make money — and undeniably skeevy. And it only gets skeevier:

[Victoria] Denton, the other New Beginnings employee who went to the FDLE, said she witnessed Atchison open homeless residents’ mail, take Social Security checks and deposit them in New Beginnings accounts, and use food stamp cards to buy food for himself…

“He would say, ‘They’re drug addicts, they’re alcoholics, they’re just going to spend it on cigarettes and booze,’ ” said Lee Hoffman, the formerly homeless minister who worked for Atchison off and on from 2007 to 2010. “The only way they get any of it is if they complain hard enough.”

Sports stadiums: your job-creation engines, everybody!

Rays still not moving to Montréal, maybe not moving to Tampa either

Fox Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi celebrated his Thanksgiving getaway day by writing a completely speculative article about the Tampa Bay Rays moving to Montréal, in which he completely speculated about such a move, before concluding that it probably wouldn’t happen, though it, you know, could. The most contorted “look I just gotta write something before getting on a plane” part, though, was this:

The Rays’ local television rights deal with FOX Sports Florida expires after the 2018 season. So if the Rays assess the Tampa market for a year or so and decide there simply isn’t a viable home for them in the region, then it’s not as if a decades-long TV rights agreement will infringe upon their ability to relocate.

If you’re wondering how that makes any sense: That doesn’t make any sense. Sports franchises that relocate don’t have any trouble tearing up their old TV rights deal and signing new ones. And if anything, the Rays’ expiring Fox Sports Florida deal, which is one of the chintziest in baseball, should give the Rays more incentive to stick around the Tampa Bay area, since in just a few more years they could be looking at a nice payday from a new cable deal (because people love to watch the Rays on TV, even if they don’t got to the games). None of which really matters, anyway, because the Rays are locked into an unbreakable lease through 2027, and even if the mayor of St. Petersburg lets them buy their way out, any new lease almost certainly won’t let them look outside the bay area, so why are we talking about this again? Oh right, Thanksgiving.

In marginally more newsy Rays stadium news, meanwhile, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is sounding less and less enthused about building the Rays a stadium, noting that one proposed site, the ConAgra Foods flour plant near the center of the city, would cost $70 million to relocate, and that public money will be tough to piece together:

“I think this will be a monumental lift to find a financing mechanism that would work,” he said. “I think the Rays would have to come to the table with serious money. I think it would have to be a smaller stadium, 30,000-35,000. I think the financing would be multi-layered from multiple sources. It’s not going to be simple like Raymond James (Stadium) was, which was one source of revenue that’s bondable over 30 years.”

None of that means that Tampa couldn’t ever end up building the Rays a stadium, mind you. Just that any such deal would likely end up requiring a lot of moving parts, probably with some combination of TIFs and tax rebates and those new sports subsidies that the state is throwing around and lord knows what else. And when you add in the cost of the Rays buying out their old lease, you have to wonder at what point owner Stuart Sternberg would be better off staying put at the Tropicana Dome rather than getting an incremental bump in attendance from a new high-priced stadium across the bay. Once again, you have to ask whether this is a team that really “needs” a new stadium, or if what they’re really after here is the public money that comes along with one, because hell if hardly anybody can turn a profit spending half a billion dollars on a new stadium in the same old market.

St. Petersburg mayor said near deal for buyout of Rays’ “don’t even think about stadiums elsewhere” clause

“People who have talked recently” with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman say that he is hopeful of reaching an agreement with Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg on a deal to allow Sternberg to talk to other local cities and counties about building a new stadium there. That’s current verboten under the terms of the Rays’ lease, but Kriseman has apparently decided that everything has its price:

[St. Petersburg council chair Bill] Dudley, who meets with the mayor weekly, said one critical element would be monetary compensation for the city if the Rays leave for Hillsborough before 2027, when their contract to play at Tropicana Field expires.

“I don’t know what the number is,” Dudley said, but added that city lawyers are working on contractual language “to protect our interests.”

That’s actually reasonable enough — as I’ve noted before, making the Rays stadium situation Hillsborough County’s problem, while getting some cash out of the deal (during negotiations with former mayor Bill Foster in 2013, Sternberg reportedly offered $2-3 million per year, or approximately one Jose Molina) and potentially freeing up the Tropicana Field site for redevelopment wouldn’t be the worst outcome for St. Petersburg. Of course, Foster tried this too and got nowhere, but supposedly Kriseman is close enough to a deal that he thinks he can present one to the council by year’s end, which is something. Then all the Rays and Hillsborough need to do is find $400 million in unmarked bills lying around somewhere, and they’re home free!

Rays-to-Montréal rumors heat up after some guy says Sternberg said something about it once

Here we go again: After longtime Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon abruptly quit on Friday, New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden dropped this into the tail end of an item about Maddon’s future and his former team’s:

After last year’s disappointing 77-85 fourth-place finish, they both realized they’d done all they could do in Tampa, and despite consistent 90-win seasons with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the Rays played to a half-empty (or worse) stadium night after night. That, more than anything, wore on Maddon and his players, the manager told confidants. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has been frustrated in his efforts to get out of Tropicana Field in St. Pete and move to a new stadium in Tampa, but there is growing belief that the economically depressed Tampa Bay area won’t support the Rays no matter where they play. And according to sources, Sternberg has had discussions with wealthy Wall Street associates about moving the Rays to Montreal, which has been without a major-league franchise since the Expos were transferred to Washington in 2005. As one major-league official put it to me Friday: “Say what you will about Montreal, but the Expos drew well over two million fans four times there in their heyday, while the Rays did that only once, their first year.

We’ve heard this rumor before, though this is the first time I’ve seen claims that Sternberg has actually had discussions about Montréal as an option. And Montréal is by far the biggest North American market without a team, ever since the Expos left in 2005. Still, it has a big problem in that its only major-league-ready stadium is even less loved than the Rays’ Tropicana Field, and there are no immediate plans for a new one. And you have to consider the source — Bill Madden loves to predict things, many of which turn out not to be true — and that the phrasing could mean just about anything: “discussions with wealthy Wall Street associates” could just mean that while shooting pheasants over sherry at the club, Sternberg sighed forlornly, “Some days I think I’d be better off in Montréal. I hear they have really good bagels there.”

Anyway, everybody and their sister has now been reporting on this unsourced rumor, and Sternberg is sure to try to use it as leverage for a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area, even though it’s pretty weak leverage when your lease says you can’t move for another 13 years. And Bud Selig, in his final week as MLB commissioner, is eager to help, saying he’s never heard from Sternberg about a Montréal move threat, but adding:

“The team has to have a ballpark that makes them competitive,” Selig said before Game 4 of the World Series. “It doesn’t produce the kind of revenue they need.”

Does Selig consider Tampa Bay a viable major league market?

He paused — a long pause — then declined to answer. He said he prefers to leave that judgment to the owner in each market.

We’re going to miss you, Bud. Nobody does passive-aggressive threatmongering like you.

Inside Arte Moreno’s Angels-to-Tustin threat and why it may be backfiring

I have an article up this morning at Vice Sports on Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno’s threat to move his team to an abandoned air base in Tustin, and how it’s not going entirely according to plan. The upshot: Moreno is trying the tried-and-true gambit of getting different municipalities to bid against each other for his team’s presence, except that so far nobody is interested in playing, with Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait’s insistence that Moreno share profits from any development on city-owned land being followed by Tustin officials chiming in that, hey yeah, that sounds like a good plan for us, too.

In researching the story, I got to talk to Tait yesterday, and he stressed that he’s not too concerned about the Angels leaving Anaheim, since stadium-sized available plots of land are hard to come by in Southern California at the price Moreno wants ($1), and leaving the area entirely would be insane for a franchise that just landed a $3 billion cable deal. On the subject of why so few mayors take a stand like he did, meanwhile, he had this to say:

“They gave us a study that it creates $200 million of economic activity and $5 million of taxes a year, which is flat-out wrong. [But some people] might believe that study…

“It’s like a coordinated PR campaign that I want them to leave. I get kids asking me at schools why I want the Angels to leave. So it’s a lot of pressure.”

Moreno still has options, of course, among which is simply waiting for a more amenable dance partner to show up: As I note in my Vice piece, Tait is facing an opponent in the upcoming mayoral election who publicly accused him of risking a repeat of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn in order to “make a quick buck on more generic development.” But it’s at least a positive sign that a couple of municipal officials are looking at what their city would get in return for stadium subsidies, not just what it takes to make sports owners happy. Maybe if we’re lucky it’ll catch on, and — what’s that, SaintPetersblog, in your report on the latest in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium mess?

[Hillsborough County Commissioner] Hagan also said St. Petersburg’s Mayor Rick Kriseman “has to protect his city and do what’s best for his constituents,” but also “he sees the big picture and the opportunity St. Pete has to really do something special (by redeveloping Tropicana Field).”

That, of course, raises the question, if Tropicana Field is more valuable as something other than a baseball stadium…wouldn’t the same go for land in Tampa?

Maybe, just maybe, we have the beginnings of a mini-trend here. If those goldurn schoolkids don’t ruin everything.