No one likes playing in a near empty ballpark. No one enjoys driving in gridlock to get to the game. Such are two problems that the Tampa Bay Rays and their fans are dealing with.
And, itâs going to be that way for a while.
The plain truth is, the level of attendance the Rays now âenjoyâ is as good as itâs going to get. They say that winning cures all ills, but what it should really say is, âWinning cures all ills, except when it comes to the Rays playing at Tropicana Field.â
You canât blame ownership on this one. Theyâve put lipstick on the pig and fielded an exciting competitive team. You canât blame fans as the location stinks and the ballpark experience (the last domed facility in all of baseball), isnât the greatest.
But, both sides (fans and ownership) need to stop with the rhetoric. It is what it is. Fans, if you donât like it, then lobby politicians to get a ballpark built on the other side of the bridge in a better location. Ownership, youâve flogged the dead horse long enough. Youâre not going to get fans to come out even when you field a great product.
For the club, there will be all kinds of discussion around relocation. Unless thereâs some kind of cataclysmic change, unless relocation is within your own television territory, itâs unlikely to happen in any reasonable amount of time. The economy, still pulling out of its malaise, doesnât exactly have municipalities jumping up and down to spend taxpayer money for ballparks. Your ownership brethren isnât excited about going through another scene like we saw Peter Angelos make when MLB relocated the Expos to Washington, DC. Indemnifying whoeverâs club television territory the Rays might encroach on isnât something easily tackled. Just ask the Athletics.
The bad thing is, the Rays management will need to keep player payroll costs down, while continuing to take in revenue-sharing, one of which isnât going to make the few fans the Rays do have happy, and isnât about to make the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox pleased as they cut (yet again) another welfare check.
There will be those that say itâs unreasonable for the Rays to have a low payroll with a considerable revenue-sharing infusion (Opening Day payroll was just under $42 million while central and local revenue-sharing has been reported to be in excess of $30 million). Surely what few fans come through the gate along with television rights fees make up the difference, right?
(See Leaked Tampa Bay Rays Docs Make Case for Revenue-Sharing, New Ballpark)
Thatâs true, for now. But, management understands (as do solid baseball analysts) that to remain competitive means having some payroll flexibility. As players hit salary arbitration eligibility and free agency, the need to have extra revenues to work from has to be there. Otherwise, what good talent is developed canât be retained.
In terms of the troubles the market currently has, a sobering matter for Rays and its fans to consider is this: the reality is MLB has used what is now Tropicana Field when it really had no burning desire to go to Tampa Bay to begin with.
Remember, St. Pete built the then Florida Suncoast Dome in 1986 to try and bring MLB to the market. When it was completed in 1990, it, and Tampa Bay-St. Pete became a lever to get new stadiums around the league built. Whether it was the White Sox, Giants, or Mariners, all used relocation to the new Dome as a way to get shiny ballparks built.
But, the leveraging really went far deeper.
In an interview with The Biz of Baseball, former commissioner Fay Vincent addressed the expansion into as a way to offset the $280 million in collusion payments back to the players that the owners had to make in the â90s.
Look, each owner had a $10 million billâŠ they didnât have the money. So they did what most would business do, they sold stock, they sold interest in the clubs, in the expansion clubs. In my day two of them - Miami and Denver. And that money, which was vital, paid off their collusion debt. Without it I think baseball would have had a very serious time. Indeed some of the clubs had had a serious time financially, a number of them were in tough shape. I remember we had to subsidize Detroit, which was going under, I think after I left, baseball helped Tampa Bay and I think in Phoenix, and probably other places where I think clubs were in tough shape financially. So thereâs no doubt about [expansion to pay off collusion debt], I was there.
So, fans and ownership have what they have. The media and management of the Rays should quit griping about the fans not turning out. The fans, in turn, should shut up and be happy with the great team that the Rays have built. Youâre stuck with each other. MLB, who if they could would likely contract the Rays, canât. Relocation out of the market isnât going to happen, at least not in this economic climateâŠ what we have is a stalemate.
You have to feel for the sides in this. No one wins even when the team is. Itâs a shame. You hope a new ballpark will fix the issue as many, this author included, believe the market is strong for baseball.
Rightly or wrongly, what happens over the next few seasons in Miami could determine the fate of a new ballpark for the Rays. As the Marlins open their new ballpark next season, the industry will watch attendance to see whether the mantra that a new ballpark will fix that clubâs attendance ills. After winning two World Series, itâs always been a matter of saying the current Sun Life Stadium is the issue. If fans donât turn out after the honeymoon is over, many will say itâs the South Florida market that is to blame. Rays fans, nowâs a good time to get on the Marlins bandwagon. Itâs possible your future depends on it.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, and is a contributor to Forbes SportsMoney blog.. He is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network (select his name in the dropdown provided).
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