Will Rays Move? No, Just “More Years of Posturing”

It won’t be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it’s going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check (to buy the team). But it’s going to get vaporized.

Stuart Sternberg, principal owner of the Tampa Bay Rays

Almost immediately after the Rays were defeated by the Rangers in the American League Division Series, owner Stu Sternberg immediately dropped a bomb: the team might not be long for Tampa Bay. This certainly wasn’t the first time that Sternberg (or others) have noted that Tampa Bay’s conspicuously poor attendance hasn’t been much improved by the team’s winning ways, or that poor attendance could make it hard for the team’s payroll to compete with other AL East teams. Tropicana Field is horribly positioned, right next to the Gulf of Mexico and absurdly far from much of the population in the area. Just 19 percent of the more than three million who live in the market are actually located within 30 minutes’ drive of the stadium. A new, better-positioned stadium could substantially improve attendance, if only the Rays didn’t have a use agreement in place through 2027 with Tropicana Field.

But these complaints are chronic, and we’ve heard them for years. So it was striking that, a few minutes after the end of Game Four, the owner basically said that the team would have to move if the current situation didn’t change. Is the team really going to move?

Absolutely not, says Jonah Keri, the author of a book about the Rays (The Extra 2%) and a fan of the only team to move in the last four decades, the Montreal Expos. “It’s largely a power play,” says Keri. “There’s always going to be a weakest market, and it happens that this is one of them.” Sternberg has focused on the stadium issue because the empty seats are glaringly obvious, but many analysts have pointed out that Sternberg’s comments aren’t really about a new stadium. They’re about leverage.

That’s the message I got from Noah Pransky, an investigative reporter with WTSP in Tampa Bay, and he has comprehensively chronicled the stadium saga at his blog Shadow of the Stadium. Pransky and Keri both told me that, since the latest round of expansion, there are basically no new baseball markets that would be better for a baseball team than Tampa Bay already is. (UPDATE: As Jonah points out in the comments below, this is an oversimplification of what he said: there may well be enough population in the Tristate area or Southern California to support another team. But neither location is perfect, and MLB may be loath to try to get the teams already there to sign on to another team coming into their midst.)

And Pransky blogged about a Peter Gammons interview that put it even more colorfully. Numerous teams used the prospect of moving to St. Petersburg as leverage to get their cities to build them new ballparks. Once a team was located in St. Pete, that leverage vanished. “You need to be able to blackmail people,” Gammons explained, and you do that by having another attractive option waiting in the wings. But now, Tampa Bay has its own team, so, “There’s no place that you can say, ‘I’m moving there.'”

So Sternberg’s leverage may be hurt by baseball’s overexpansion, while the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has been disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn. Even as fans have sympathy for the team’s desire for a new stadium — not many people are diehard defenders of the Trop — their appetite for huge public spending on a new stadium is notably diminished. “Almost every police and fire station in Florida has had to make major cuts,” Pransky told me. “Almost every school district. So it’s very hard, no matter how much they love baseball, to see spending on baseball over other needs.”

After a decade of losing under previous owner Vince Naimoli, with terrible TV ratings and terrible attendance in a poorly-located stadium, the Rays were a laughingstock of baseball — and that’s when savvy Wall Streeter Stu Sternberg bought the team for a bargain. (Stuart Sternberg declined to comment for this article.) Despite his complaints, he has notably increased the value of the team, and its television ratings. But because of a television contract signed during the bad old days, the team hasn’t gotten a chance to realize much profit from its bigger television audience. As the St. Petersburg Times reported in 2010, under the terms of a TV contract signed in 2008 that runs through 2016, Fox gets most of the profits: “Fox, which carries games all over the state on its FSN and Sun Sports channels, pays the Rays an annual fee, then collects the bulk of advertising revenue, as well as payments from cable companies that want to carry the games.”

On television, unlike with the stadium, the Rays have a huge audience, but they aren’t profiting from it due to a bad television deal, signed before the team became a league champion and perennial playoff contender. In 2010, the Rays had the fifth-highest local television ratings in the majors. (And, in this year’s ALDS, Tampa Bay got a higher television rating than the Rangers, last year’s AL champion.) The Rays’ overall ratings in the 2011 regular season dropped by a substantial percentage this year, prompting Maury Brown recently to write that Tampa Bay doesn’t “deserve the Rays.”

But that doesn’t have to be the case. I spoke to Vince Gennaro, an expert in the business of baseball, and he was very careful to parse Sternberg’s complaint: “I didn’t hear him say that the market is untenable, I heard him say that the situation is untenable.” Tampa Bay is certainly one of the 30 best markets in the United States to have a baseball team. However, Gennaro told me that he didn’t see any way to solve the Rays’ financial woes without a new stadium. Referring to the Deadspin-leaked financials for the Rays, Gennaro said it was “stunning” that the Rays attendance hadn’t increased more between 2007 and 2008, when the team gained 31 games in the standings and won the American League. With anemic growth like that, “You’re going to need a major change in the primary revenue streams, and you come to your live date as your number one.”

So that’s why Sternberg is so set on getting a better stadium, though you can bet that he’s keeping a laser focus on getting a better television deal the next time around. But because he has no real leverage, with no other city or potential owner courting him, all he can do is try to get the local community on his side to pressure the city of St. Petersburg to release him from his obligation to Tropicana Field, or alternately hope that Major League Baseball will step in and demand that the city cut him a deal. “Sadly,” Steve Slowinski told me, “I think [St. Petersburg Mayor Bill] Foster has taken notes on what happened down in Miami, where local officials got bullied by Loria into giving him everything he wants.” That’s why Pransky predicts much more of the same in the foreseeable future: “We have many more years of posturing, below-average attendance, and veiled threats.”



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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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mike wants wins
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mike wants wins

People in MN went to the metrodome when the Twins were good. Seriously, that stadium and the location is awful for Tampa. No increased attendance despite their success? I have no idea why you’d stay there if you had a chance to get out.

Are we sure that Florida is a good place for professional sports? None of them, in any sport, draw fans when they are just average. They only draw when successful, and even then, not always. Just because a market is big does not mean that it is a good sports’ market.

mike wants wins
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mike wants wins

I could be wrong about that thing at the end, about attendance for pro teams, but it sure seems that way from up here in MN….

JG
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JG

The problem with the Trop isn’t really the interior (which – as someone who has been to both places – is worlds better than the Metrodome). It’s the location, which is pretty much the opposite situation of the Metrodome’s great location.

DavidCEisen
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DavidCEisen

The Detroit Metro region isn’t as bad off as the city of Detroit. There are still plenty of rich people right outside of the city limits and it is exceedingly easy to drive to the stadium.

Luke
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Luke

Why do the Marlins and Loria deserve a new stadium and the Rays who are the model of how to run a baseball team do not ? Its a horrible stadium, tell me one person who thinks that its not (besides Oakland) the worst stadium in baseball ? Even Minnesota got one and that team was an inch away from contraction.

JG
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JG

Honestly, it probably is the worst outside of Oakland, but that may be more of a testament to the quality of all the other stadiums in baseball than how much the Trop sucks. Personally, I’ve found it to be a comfortable place to sit for a couple hours with pretty good sightlines. In the 99% of the games where the lights don’t go out or the catwalks don’t screw something up, it’s not bad, ignoring the poor location. It looks like ass on TV, of course, but it’s actually not horrible in person.

Of course it’s irrelevant at this point, but Pro Player/whatever the hell they call it now in Miami was way worse. Good riddance to the second-from-the-last multi-purpose stadium in baseball! (I think…)

gnomez
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gnomez

I actually don’t really mind the Trop. As far as physical plant goes, I like it better than Atlanta and US Cellular.

Joe
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Joe

In response to JG, the Argonauts share the SkyDome/Rogers Centre with the Blue Jays.

mike
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mike

I like the Trop. Its in a bad spot, but the stadium itself is fine. I haven’t been to every stadium so I can’t say which is the worst, but its not Tropicana Field. Joe Robbie/Pro Player whatever Stadium is much worse, but I realize they are getting a new one. Shea was also much worse. I personally think the Trop is a much better place to watch a game then Fenway. People love that place because of the history, but the reality is that that stadium is old, cramped and uncomfortable.

Jordi Scrubbings
Guest

I’ve written a bit about this, and as a Tampa resident, if I can try to explain: there are a lot of sports in Florida. None of them draw particularly well. Besides 9 pro sports teams, there are a lot at least 4 quality college football teams, 13 (soon to be 14) minor league teams, and several arena league, lingerie league, and other pro teams. That is a lot for the 18 million people in the state to follow. And that’s not even mentioning the amusement parks and other forms of entertainment – to include even the beach. It’s not that they aren’t fans, or that they don’t care, it’s that people’s money can’t keep up with all their interests.
For example, I go to 20 Rays a year, 1 FSU football game, 1 FSU basketball game, and maybe a few Lightning games. I haven’t been to a Bucs game in years.

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