Thursday, July 29, 2010

Stalemate is Uncharted Territory? Hardly...

Of all the coverage of the Rays' rebuff of Mayor Foster's latest proposal, one quote in the St. Pete Times really stood out to me:
"We're really in uncharted territory," said Rick Eckstein, co-author of the 2003 book Public Dollars, Private Stadiums. "If there's going to be a standoff, it would be unprecedented."
Uncharted territory?? Hardly.

"There have been a handful of other cities that have told teams 'You have a lease, so like it or lump it,'" says Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes. "The state of Minnesota getting an injunction against the contraction of the Minnesota Twins in 2002 comes to mind, as does the original lawsuit threat against MLB's refusal to let the Giants move to Tampa Bay that ended up with the creation of the Rays in the first place."

While deMause acknowledges there hasn't been any court battles recently in the MLB world, he points out the long court fight the Seattle Sonics waged to break their lease. A judge even sided with the city in a key ruling. The Sonics had to pay Seattle $45 million to break their lease just two years early.

For Eckstein to call the current standoff "uncharted territory" is simply inaccurate. There have been standoffs for MLB parks, spring training parks, football stadiums, and NHL/NBA arenas. Even George Steinbrenner used the stalemate as leverage in New York (unsuccessfully).

But, as extremely predictable as the stalemate is, deMause points out politicians turnover a lot faster than team owners do.

"I remember when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota and declared himself opposed to any and all sports subsidies," deMause said. "The Twins eventually got their new stadium, the Vikings are working on theirs, and Ventura is long forgotten."

UPDATE: Attendence Numbers About to Climb

According to the TBO_Rays on Twitter, the Rays have sold out all three Yankees games at the Trop this weekend...the first time the team has ever sold out three straight regular season games at home.

I'm quite surprised by that last fact, but this weekend's crowds, combined with the 26,000-plus camper-dominated gathering today, should boost the team's season attendance numbers quite well. They won't jump more than one spot in the MLB rankings (currently 24th), but it could be the start of a rebound as the Rays get into the nitty-gritty of their playoff push against some very good teams.

It should also give me a nice reprieve from writing posts like "How the Trop is Like Pensacola Beach."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rays' Attendance: How The Trop is Like Pensacola Beach

I had meant to post this last week, but covering "real" news got in the way...

I was at The Trop recently not as a reporter, but as a baseball fan. Sitting with a group of friends, I heard a number complain about the stadium. Not specific attributes of the stadium, just about The Trop in general.

I asked what they disliked so much about the park and several friends had trouble putting it into words. They simply said things like, "it doesn't feel like baseball."

Apparently, a lot of other Tampa Bay residents feel the same way. Through 47 games, attendance is down to 21,939 per game, a 15 percent drop from last year. The Tampa Tribune points out that just 17,009 fans saw Matt Garza's no-hitter in-person.

But there's no lack of love for the Rays...TV ratings are up an astonishing 72 percent from 2009.

The St. Petersburg Times recently presented possible explanations for why nobody was going to see the hopefully playoff-bound Rays play:

- Maybe Tampa Bay's not a baseball market? I disagree, believing the team is still new and just needs some more years to grow its fan base.
- Maybe fans aren't willing to drive to The Trop on a weekday? Seems like good logic, but in countless other baseball cities, fans will drive 60+ minutes for a weekday game.
- Maybe there aren't enough corporations near the stadium? Another factor that may contribute to poor attendance numbers, but I think the poor corporate support may have more to do with Vince Naimoli's negative legacy and the awful economy than distance.

It's got to be a combination of factors, but from my vantage point, it seems that the Rays have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In continuing to point out problems with the Trop, the Rays (perhaps inadvertantly) are building - and reinforcing - the stadium's negative image.

Why else would so many people dislike the Trop but have trouble explaining why? It's like politics. The more the issue is discussed on talk radio and on the evening news, the more people will believe it. Perception is reality.

Of course the stadium has issues, but why such a drastic mid-season drop in attendance when the team is doing well? The Rays were 17th in the league a few months ago and have since fallen to 24th.

This theory may be far-fetched to some, but it's similar to the situation playing itself out in Oakland right now where A's owner Lew Wolff has continuously bashed his stadium and city.

And it's also a situation playing itself out on the Florida Gulf Coast. Gov. Charlie Crist spent several weeks in May talking about Florida's nightmare scenario...before oil even washed ashore.

Even though Florida beaches were perfectly clean at the time, the tourism numbers took a devestating hit from the perception. Remember, perception is reality. Crist took to the airwaves again to try and promote Florida vacations, but the damage had been done.

The Trop is merely Stu Sternberg's version of Pensacola beaches. It's not an ideal situation, but it's one that may be made worse in the short-term by reinforcing negative perceptions to the public.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rays Respond to St. Pete Following Foster's Proposal

After St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster sent the Rays an offer last week to amend the team's use agreement with the city, the two parties sat down today to discuss the future.

Although the team didn't indicate if it had signed the amendment, it appears the meeting didn't go the way Foster and St. Pete officials had hoped.

Here's the official statement from Rays' president Matt Silverman:
Since Stu’s announcement a few weeks back, we have received an outpouring of support from fans throughout Tampa Bay. They love the Rays and they want to ensure that the team is a permanent fixture in our community.

To secure the long-term future of the Rays here, any search for a new ballpark site needs to explore all of the Tampa Bay region. This is what we repeated to Mayor Foster today. We thanked him for his gesture, and we conveyed to him again that we will consider sites in St. Petersburg and Gateway when we are considering all potential sites in Tampa Bay.

Our organization is singularly focused on the pennant race at hand. Come November, we will work to formulate a process for a ballpark site search with the City of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.

Thanks to 10 News Producer Matt Sinn for the help on this.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Garza, Rays Deserve a Lot More Respect Than This

Minutes after Matt Garza completed the first no-hitter in Rays history, came one of the better bloopers in Rays history. As one of my Twitter followers called it, "epic fail":
Matt Garza throws a no-hitter; national media doesn't kn... on Twitpic
(Click for full-size)

The small typo (which was quickly fixed) was then replaced with another slight...leaving out the "Bay" in the Rays' location.
Wow. USAToday fixed "Devil Rays" typo with another ... on Twitpic
(Click for full-size)

Clearly, the Rays are still fighting for national respect. But the battle isn't as uphill as it was a few years ago.

As Trib writer Joey Johnston recently reported (while decked out in Rays' gear), Yankees fans offered friendly greetings and even some good-natured jeers in Yankee Stadium. That same series, touted the Rays as a legit threat to the Bombers.

I can tell you as a native Bostonian, Red Sox fans respect the Rays too. And Jays/O's fans probably do as well since the Rays are outdrawing those teams right now. But the problem doesn't exist in the AL East; it's the rest of the country that appears to be ignorant about the Rays.

Respect has to be earned, and the team has done everything it needs to do the last few years to earn it. However, it still takes time. The Rays remain the AL's newest team and it takes repeated success to make a name for yourself. Of course, the more pennants the team wins, no-hitters the team throws, and series the team wins over big-time rivals, the faster it will come.

Full disclosure: I work for WTSP, which has the same parent company, Gannett Corp., as USA Today. I hope I still work there tomorrow.

Final comment: The best response I got all night was from Twitter follower Sarah Tyson, @SarahSeesSports, who suggested the tongue-in-cheek fines the Rays have levied for incorrectly identifying the team could pay for a new stadium.

Stadium Food Fails in Florida

Yikes. An ESPN report on stadium and arena vendors indicates Florida is home to seven of the country's eight worst venues when it comes to health violations.

The Rays may be No. 2 in the baseball standings right now, but they're tied for No. 1 on this not-so-dubious list. According to ESPN, Tropicana Field and the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. are the only two venues in the country where 100 percent of vendors were in violation of health codes. At The Trop, offenses include dirty countertops, utensils, and equipment.

Now, in fairness, it appears ESPN may have data that is up to a year old. Presumably, most teams would have cracked down on vendors once violations were reported. And, at The Trop, while every vendor was cited, they also all met the basic inspection standards to keep operating.

You can read the entire report here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Baseball in Orlando Update

"Bases Loaded Orlando," the grass-roots group trying to lure baseball to Orlando, has updated its webpage with a personal message from one of its organizers, a gentleman named Chris Dosen.

He writes:
Baseball can’t come soon enough! I am an avid sports fan who recently moved to Orlando from Miami, and so far I love Central Florida. The one thing that I miss most about Miami though is the sports!
Miami sports?? I thought Dosen may have been talking about Miami, Ohio until I found his facebook page.

He lists his interests as, "Making Money, Spending Money, Sports, The Finer Things in Life, Constantly Trying to Improve Myself, Etc," which I guess is a good thing if Orlando is looking for a mover and a shaker to land baseball...but really? Miami sports??

Dosen continues:
I’ve already become an avid Magic fan, and now I hope to add a baseball team to my list. I can’t wait to get a team here. I think it is the perfect time. This city needs another team to cheer for, and baseball is the perfect fit for the size of the city. We don’t quite have the population for a football team yet, but we’re getting there! Baseball will fill the gap perfectly.
So Orlando wouldn't be able to sell 500,000 tickets a year to a football game but it can sell 3,000,000 for baseball? Maybe Jacksonville should get an MLB team too.

I’m counting down the days until the announcement is made as to which team is being brought here. Where will the stadium be built? What’s going to be the team name? How about the logo? How much will season tickets cost? How soon until we have games here? So much excitement. I can’t wait!!
Dosen's excitement is evident, but if he wants to make the argument that Orlando deserves a professional baseball team, he'd better start by showing why it's a BETTER sports town than Miami, a city that usually doesn't pack the house for Hurricanes games and hasn't done much to support its baseball team...well, ever.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Analysis of Mayor Foster's Proposed Amendment to Rays

After giving the documents another read-through, I'm learning more about the mayor's proposal to the Rays that I wrote about earlier this evening:

1) The language of the current use agreement prohibits the two parties to even consider new stadium sites right now, so it needs to be amended for the city and team to (legally) proceed with discussions.

2) While the mayor said he would be open to non-St. Pete stadium sites if they were adjacent to the city and could be annexed in, a map on the last page of the amendment shows how few sites he was actually talking about.

The areas included in the mayor's "expanded" possibilities are Derby Lane, the Airco Golf Course, and the St. Pete-Clearwater Airport. The mayor tells me tonight its not logical to talk about the airport site, so we're left with two very small concessions.

3) Almost all of "Gateway" is already within city limits, so building a stadium near the bay bridges - whether it be at Toytown, Carillon, or somewhere else - remains the most probable scenario. Of course, I've been saying that for 14 months now...

Mayor Foster's Concession to the Rays

Just a few minutes ago, Mayor Bill Foster sent Rays owner Stu Sternberg a proposed amendment to the city's use agreement with the team. It would allow the two parties to consider a future stadium in the "Gateway" area of Pinellas County, generally defined as North St. Pete and unincorporated Pinellas County near the bay bridges.

Since the mayor doesn't set policy in St. Pete, city council would have to approve the amendment once the Rays signed off on it.

However, we aren't sure the Rays want anything to do with the amendment since Sternberg said last month that the team would only consider a process "that considers every ballpark site in Tampa Bay."

Foster's still not open to a search of sites outside of Pinellas County, so the plot will continue to thicken.

Glazers Doing Something Right

Despite the criticisms and doubts surrounding their finances, the Glazer family owns two of the top-12 sports franchises in the world, according to Forbes Magazine.

Manchester United was once again the top value, worth an estimated $1.84 billion. Of course, the Glazers owe a tremendous amount of debt on the team, but they are in better shape when it comes to their football investment.

The Tampa Bay Bucs are the 12th-most valuable franchise in the world, worth an estimated $1.09 billion, with annual revenue of $241 million.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rays Helping to Fund Rail Campaign

The Tampa Bay Rays have kicked in $50,000 to help fund Moving Hillsborough Forward, the grass-roots group campaigning to get a referendum on a rail tax passed this fall.

While the one-cent tax would be levied in Hillsborough County only, the Rays, who play in Pinellas County, see the referendum as an important issue.

"The development of a world-class transit system is crucial to the long-term economic vitality of the Tampa Bay region," team spokesman Rick Vaughn said in an email. "The Rays are proud to be one of the hundreds of companies and individuals throughout western and central Florida, who are united in this effort.”

Moving Hillsborough Forward reported nearly $1 million in fundraising this cycle, while reports on some of the other major contributors to the campaign.

Rays Confirm Senior Prom for Senior Citizens

After sending out an invitation to fans last week about their "Senior Prom for Senior Citizens" promotion on Aug. 18, the Rays provided more details in a press release today:
The day will feature Dick Crippen as the MC, crowning of the king and queen pregame, Elvis and Frank Sinatra impersonators, and the opportunity to dance on the field postgame in the Senior Center Field Shuffle.
Even though the promotion isn't related to the Pepsi Refresh project, fans apparently called on the Rays to deliver the wacky stunt after Evan Longoria suggested it:Gotta hand it to the Rays, they've got the best promotions schedule in baseball.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

St. Pete Mayor Eases Stance...a Little

Mayor Bill Foster said - while he maintains the Rays must remain in the City of St. Pete - he's willing to consider sites outside of city limits if they could be annexed into the city. WTSP's Preston Rudie reports

This isn't really anything new, as Foster said a year ago on the campaign trail that the Gateway/Carillon region (only part of which is currently in St. Pete) was a possiblity and that annexation was an easy hurdle to clear if necessary. It certainly isn't a new concept in Pinellas County, where small parcels are annexed into cities like St. Pete and Clearwater on a regular basis.

"It's not a new twist, but it demonstrates our willingness to consider other properties," Foster told the Tampa Tribune.

Of course, I may already sound like a broken record, but there's plenty of land around Tampa Bay to build a's the funding that's absent.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Another Stadium Possibility for Rays

This weekend, the St. Pete Times had an article about a flea market mogul offering land in Pinellas Park to the Rays for a new stadium. No surprise, he still hasn't heard back from the team four months later.

While a huge plot of land is nice - as I've explained several times - land isn't a problem for the Rays; financing is.

In other stadium news, Neil deMause over at Field of Schemes talks about a possible "ticket tax" that could help build a new arena in Edmonton.

I imagine that kind of idea would be popular in Tampa Bay. Surcharge the people who attend the games instead of everyone. This kins of plan would work better in Pinellas Co, where the funding gap is much smaller than it would be in Hillsborough County.

However, as deMouse explains, the problems with a ticket surcharge include possibly diminishing the benefit of a new stadium if the extra cost keeps people away and the damage price hikes can inflict on owners' profits. A lot of fans would have to think hard about spending an extra $5 (or more) per game just to go to a new stadium.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Steinbrenner Biographer Identifies Boss' Quirks

There was no way to avoid the George Steinbrenner news on TV today, but all-in-all, some very good television produced by all the networks here in Tampa Bay.

For all the controversy The Boss created at the MLB level, he did nothing but good for the Tampa Bay community. He donated millions of millions of dollars to dozens and dozens of causes.

“In Tampa, there wasn't a more influential person - in the entire city - than George Steinbrenner,” biographer Peter Golenbock told me today. “Anytime anyone wanted something done, the first thing somebody would say is, 'Go see George.' "

You can read more of our story with the author of "George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire" here.

Golenbock doesn't present the most flattering look at Steinbrenner's personality, but he does reveal a number of the character quirks that explain some of his most notable outbursts.

"He was a perfectionist and he wanted the people working for him to be a perfectionists,” he said of Steinbrenner’s hands-on ownership approach.

As for The Boss' disregard for limiting payroll, Golenbock said "he was a monopolist...playing fair was not part of his makeup. He really wanted to crush everybody else."

I also got the chance to discuss Steinbrenner's role in the stadium debates. He pushed for (and got) a brand-new spring training home in Tampa, then last year's new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

"If the original Yankee Stadium was the 'House that Ruth Built,'" said Golenbock, "the new Yankee Stadium is the 'House that George Built.'"

Monday, July 12, 2010

Selig Says Rays Need New Home, Not Contraction

Bud Selig addressed a bevy of issues at this week's All-Star Game in SoCal, including the possibility of contracting the A's or Rays if they can't get new stadiums built. He told the LA Times that "I think we have moved past (contraction)...we're going into 16 years of labor peace. I regard that as maybe the prime reason for the growth of the sport."

Selig added, "There is no question that both of those teams need new ballparks. We'll just have to work our way through it. Tampa has done a marvelous job running their team. [General Manager] Billy Beane has done a terrific job in Oakland. With the economics of baseball today, you've got to have a new stadium."

You can read more here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Rays May Open Checkbooks

I'm not sure it's the biggest news in the world, but the Rays have made the announcement that they'll be buyers this summer as the playoff hunt heats up. Good summary from the Trib's Joe Henderson today.

I happen to think Cliff Lee (and the roughly $4M he's owed for the rest of the season) will be going elsewhere, but there are still plenty of good veterans the Rays could consider adding for the playoff push.

If nothing else, Stu Sternberg's Tuesday announcement (as long as he backs it up) is a significant olive branch to Tampa Bay after his stadium announcement last month. If says, "I'm willing to spend to make you a winning team, Tampa Bay...hope you can do the same for us."

But legendary Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo paints a different picture:
Sternberg, who has been trying to get a new stadium in vain so far, left plenty of outs in his statement. He said the team would try to improve "by any means necessary," but also indicated that money could be an "impediment," and that whatever the team does now has to be weighed against the future. One can interpret all that any way one chooses, but to this reporter it means, "OK, if we get Cliff Lee, we’re not going to re-sign Carl Crawford."
No jury will be necessary for this verdict...the answers will be evident through the team's actions this summer, fall, and winter.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pinellas Co. Begins Stadium Funding Plan

We're still a looooong way from the $500-$600 million required for a new stadium and we already know the Rays would love to go to Tampa, but the Times' Stephen Nohlgren breaks news tonight of the Pinellas Co. Tourist Development Commission(TDC) considering new stadium financing via bed taxes as soon as 2015.

This was an inevitable event in the bold blueprint for stadium-building, but I'm a little suprised/pleased to see the TDC start the process now. Pinellas Co. still has way more available money for a stadium than Hillsborough Co., and - as I've detailed before - that's way more important than available land in the stadium saga.

One year ago, I wrote Mid-Pinellas was the most likely spot for a stadium, and I still believe it to be true. The one curveball in the plan, however, has been the oil spill and the TDC may have to re-arrange its long-term priorities if the situation doesn't improve soon.

Buy World Series Tickets Now*

It's not my favorite idea ever, but it seems like a win-win for baseball fans.

Major League Baseball is offering a deal where fans can pay a small fee to reserve playoff tickets. The fee per ticket is $10, $15, or $20, depending on the round, and it guarantees you the right to purchase often hard-to-get playoff tickets at face value.

*The hitch is that if your team doesn't make that round of the playoffs, you forfeit the cash.

If you wanted to reserve two tickets to one ALDS game, one ALCS game, and one World Series game, you'd spend $90. A bargain in most cities if your team makes the World Series, but lost cash if it doesn't.

I can see fans in cities like Boston - where the team has sold out hundreds of games in a row - jumping at this "small investment" in the futures game. But in places like Tampa Bay or Detroit or Los Angeles, where the team may not make the playoffs at all, MLB could be the only winner.

Would you lay down the cash on this investment?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grass-Roots Orlando Group Mobilizes

The far-fetched MLB-to-Orlando effort has introduced a new website. Former Congressional candidate, Armando Gutierrez, thinks he can help lure the Rays or another team to the nation's top tourist city...but if you remember back to January, several teams laughed at the notion that deals were already in the works.

It's great Gutierrez wants to be proactive, but he named his group "Bases Loaded Orlando," which implies the "team" is close to scoring. However, as far as Orlando is from ever getting major-league baseball, his group would have been better titled "Bases Empty Orlando."

The site also features my favorite movie misquote, "If you build it, they will come." The correct quote is, "If you build it, he will come."