“Baseball will not work in downtown St. Pete.”
When Tampa Rays owner Stuart Sternberg uttered those words at a June 21 press conference, he fired the first shot in what promises to be a multi-year political and legal war with St. Petersburg officials over the next destination of his team.
Sternberg was a gullible and optimistic baseball outsider when he purchased controlling interest in the Rays franchise in 2005. He believed what he was told: Put a winner on the field and the fans will come. That may be true in some locales, but St. Pete – due to a combination of demographics, economics and geography - isn’t one of them.
In their first eight years of existence, the Rays had no direction, no success on the field, and thanks to majority owner Vince Naimoli’s heavy-handed ways, were among the least fan-friendly sports franchises in the country. But Sternberg, a successful Wall Street businessman, turned things around, on and off the field. With a consistent approach to drafting and developing talent, the team became competitive, even going to the World Series in 2008. Ownership spent millions of dollars dressing up Tropicana Field, and the team is renowned for catering to its fans, even lowering ticket prices and providing free parking.
For a time, fans flocked to the Trop whenever the Yankees and Red Sox were in town. But even that attraction wore thin. Heading into a three game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 25, the Rays were 24th in MLB attendance, despite having the best record in baseball over the first third of the season.
During his press conference, Sternberg said something that St. Pete politicians should seize upon. He said the Rays would consider “…any ballpark site in Tampa Bay, but only as part of a process that considers every ballpark site in Tampa Bay.” St. Pete officials should work with Sternberg to resolve the lease on Tropicana Field, which doesn’t expire until 2027, in an amicable fashion. The Rays have previously indicated a willingness to develop the current ballpark site in a manner that would pay off the remaining bonds on the facility, thereby insulating the taxpayers from further losses.
For baseball to have a chance of working financially in the Tampa Bay area, a ballpark needs to be located on the east side of the bay in Hillsborough County, which would provide better access to the majority of the area’s population and generate greater interest from corporate sponsors. That’s as obvious today as it was in 1986 when St. Pete, in an effort to pre-empt cross-bay rival Tampa from hosting an MLB team, began constructing a stadium in the downtown area with no commitment from a team.
The mantra was, "If you build it, they will come", and come they did, at least briefly. First the White Sox flirted with St. Pete, followed by Seattle and San Francisco. But leverage in Chicago, common sense in Seattle, and MLB intervention in San Francisco dashed the hopes of baseball fans in St. Pete on each occasion.
Frustrated, Florida officials brought a lawsuit against MLB, which ultimately led owners to award an expansion franchise to St. Pete for the 1998 season. That short-sighted move has haunted MLB ever since.
St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster was adamant that the city would not give the Rays permission to discuss alternative ballpark sites with any other city in the bay area. City Attorney John Wolfe chimed in that he was preparing for a legal battle. When and how the standoff between the city and the Rays is resolved is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: It will not end well for St. Pete. Either the Rays are headed for new digs across the bay or, better for them, a new city hundreds of miles from Tampa Bay.
History has shown that Florida will not support Major League Baseball in a manner necessary to make a team financially successful. In a classic example of the triumph of hope over experience, the Florida Marlins elected to remain in South Florida after voters approved financing for the construction of a new facility. Here’s hoping the Rays don’t make the same mistake. It’s time for Sternberg and the Rays to move to greener pastures.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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