Friday, November 19, 2010

Land isn't Problem in Stadium Saga; Funding is

Despite the rhetoric that plays out on message boards, talk radio airwaves, and newspaper columns, the decision on the long-term home of the Rays has very little to do with location and everything to do with financing.

As Pinellas County officials take baby steps toward a possible funding structure for a new stadium, Hillsborough County can do nothing but sit back and watch. Since Raymond James Stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum are sucking up the bed taxes until Jan. 1, 2027, most commissioners acknowledge there just isn't any public funding available for a new baseball park.

Sure, a Tampa ballpark would be more easily-accessible for the majority of Rays fans.

Sure, there's land available in Downtown Tampa. And at the Florida State Fairgrounds. And sure, the land would likely be given away for free for a MLB stadium. (For what it's worth, land would also essentially be free at the current Trop site and a Toytown/North St. Pete site.)

But $70 million in land is a drop in the bucket for a $500-600 stadium and no developer is going to start paying for a stadium structure on top of a land giveaway.

Two stadiums have been built in the last 40-plus years without public funds. How'd those turn out? The owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets admitted it was a terrible idea and he's going broke. While the owners of the San Francisco Giants admitted soon after opening Pac Bell Park that they caught lightning in a bottle and a privately-funded stadium is now impossible.

So where does that leave the Rays, who would - in theory - put more butts in seats if they got a new stadium in Tampa? Stuck in a contract that isn't ideal for their business.

One-time St. Pete mayoral hopeful Larry Williams hit the nail on the head last year on the campaign trail when he said, "what's best for the Rays isn't necessarily what's best for St. Petersburg."

Most lawyers see the team's "use agreement" as a more binding contract than a lease. And, as Marlins' owner David Samson said, "a contract is a contract!" Heck, Conan O'Brien got a $34 million parting gift from NBC when those two sides decided the contract was standing in their way.

So it would seem the Rays need to work with St. Pete in breaking the current lease if they don't want to play at Tropicana Field until 2027. Which means the price tag on a new ballpark could rise. Which means Pinellas County has another advantage over Hillsborough since a Gateway/Toytown stadium wouldn't require a St. Pete buyout.

Rays' owner Stu Sternberg told me this week that he's looking for a regional approach to solve the financial issues. And although he didn't cite examples, one has to look toward collaborations like Tampa Bay Water and a potential three-county light-rail partnership as evidence that Tampa Bay is coming together as a single region. Previously, it's been city vs. city and county vs. county.

St. Pete officials maintain they aren't holding the team hostage, but merely looking out for the return on investment promised to the community years ago. Since they're taking a hard line this offseason and not even Pinellas County can come close to putting together $30 million/year for a new ballpark right now, it doesn't appear a quick resolution is on the horizon.


  1. Christ -
    Put this to a vote. Are we really having this discussion when we're millions of dollars over budget? They're not honoring the current contract, yet we're gonna rush in and sign another one to put ourselves another $100 million in debt? They should have to settle the remaining debt or not get any public funds, land, etc.

    This is just insane. If he wants to definitely bleed us dry, all for uncertain claims of public benefit, let him take the damn team and go.

  2. The population difference within 30 miles of downtown Tampa and downtown St. Pete is 6%. Increase Rays attendance by 6% and you go from #22 in attendance to...#22. Are Tampa fans just better? Ask the Bucs, another young team finding success and playing to chirping crickets. The Tampa or St. Pete location is not the issue. A new stadium attendance bump will end long before the bonds are even close to being paid. As a taxpayer that is a concern. Attendance is down in MLB overall and may stay down with more people opting to watch in the comfort of their own home in front of their big flat-screen TV. The Rays are smart and, to use old clichés, it’s time to think outside of the box and be ahead of the curve. Rays were top 5 in TV ratings. Current TV contract is up in 2016. Gain control of your broadcast. Think sound stage with a live audience and not stadium. The nicest background scenery would put you back on the St. Pete waterfront. Since there isn’t a requirement to share gate attendance with the visiting team, instead of the large 34,000 seat waterfront stadium planned build a small 18,000 seat stadium. Make it as luxurious and beautiful as possible. Every game would be a sell-out on season tickets since the last minute buyers will know there won’t always be seats. Put HD (and 3D even since the newer TV’s are coming out 3D) cameras from every conceivable angle throughout the stadium. Stream broadcasts live and let subscribers watch the game the way they see fit. They could be able to pan and view from multiple cameras throughout. Microphones throughout would bring the sounds of the stadium. Millions could experience the views and sounds of sitting on the first base line instead of just a few. They could pan towards the bullpen to see who is warming up, zoom in on the signs the catcher is giving or just glance out at the sailboats on the water. They could also have PIP with the network broadcast being shown. A smaller stadium costing less to build, requiring less in infrastructure and consisting of a tear down and rebuild of Al Lang would get approval from the city council and would not need voter approval. No need for a lease buy-out either. Start the process now and you might be ready by the new broadcast contract. You will have the same number of fans buying hotdogs that you have now (although sitting in premium seating), but the potential number of subscribers to a streaming broadcast of the games would far exceed the potential number of ticket holders for a larger stadium.

      Bravo Sir/Madam, you have hit the nail on the head. I had the same idea (except for the waterfront location) and think this is the wave of the future for MLB in Tampa Bay and other teams struggling with attendance.

  3. Is their land still available near Raymond James Stadium?

    1. There's plenty of land all over Tampa Bay for new development.