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.