Thursday, December 29, 2011

St. Pete Mixed on Mayor's Handling of Rays

I'm actually somewhat surprised that St. Pete residents aren't more supportive of their mayor's efforts to keep the Rays in-town.

Bill Foster has stuck his neck out to preserve his city's leverage in the ongoing stadium saga, but a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll suggests his city only approves of his handling of the drama by a 49-48 margin:
Blame a confusing couple of months this summer in which City Council members criticized Foster for not having more of a strategy. During an August meeting, he said he had a plan, but wouldn't disclose it publicly, causing some council members to scoff that he was bluffing.

"His outlandish claim that he had a secret plan was a disaster," said Bill Williams, 19, a computer programmer who lives downtown. "There's been a massive breakdown of communication on the Rays issue."

Foster still said that it was all a misunderstanding and that he does have a strategy to work more closely with the Rays, adding he will try to bring "clarity" to the issue in the coming months.
Being mayor certainly is a thankless job...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

This isn't Goodbye, John Romano...

Some compliments and criticism of Stu Sternberg's 2011 in this morning's Times from columnist John Romano:
Typically, team owners allow MLB officials to be the bad guys in (a stadium) squabble. Sternberg, who should be celebrated for his incredible work with this franchise, instead set himself up as a villain regardless of whether you believe his message.
Romano may be preparing to move from the Sports section to the lead spot on the Metro page, but I assume he'll continue to write about Sternberg and the Rays' Stadium Saga, perhaps even more.

In the meantime, I wish John luck and take a look back at all of his columns I've critiqued over the years:

10/6/11 - Rays' model not sustainable (I disagreed)
7/20/11 -
Stadium Saga all comes back to money (I agreed)
2/24/11 -
Contraction talk gaining credibility (I disagreed)
9/22/10 -
Stu Sternberg shows some humility (I agreed)
8/25/10 -
Rays owners not getting very rich very fast (I agreed)
8/6/10 -
Joe Maddon "off" on timing of catwalk criticism (I agreed)

Many Tampa Residents OK with St. Pete Stadium

A new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll indicates a majority Tampa Bay residents still prefer the Rays play in St. Petersburg and/or Pinellas County, rather than move to Tampa.

Times writer Stephen Nohlgren reports:

About 55 percent of Tampa Bay area residents overall prefer Major League Baseball to remain at Tropicana Field or at a mid-Pinellas location in the Gateway area.

Part of that sentiment stems from fans like Gulfport resident Christina Ramires, a disabled widow who likes the short drive to the Trop. "We always go two or three times a year when they offer discount tickets to school kids,'' she said.

But support for the Trop also stems from Hillsborough residents like Michael Fall of Apollo Beach, who thinks "the Rays should stay put. I don't think they deserve a new stadium."

About 30 percent of respondents favor a Hillsborough site...The 508 people polled were divided evenly between Hillsborough and Pinellas residents.
Want further evidence that average residents shouldn't be trusted with important decisions? Nohlgren reports, of Hillsborough County residents, "about 27 percent favor the fairgrounds at Interstate 4 and U.S. Highway 301, compared with 17 percent who like downtown and 5 percent who prefer the West Shore area."

However, research has shown a fairgrounds site wouldn't be much more accessible to Tampa Bay's population than the current Downtown St. Petersburg site. And it wouldn't have the redevelopment potential a Downtown Tampa site would have, either.

Friday, December 23, 2011

It's All About the Education...

Forbes does more than just estimate how much profit Stu Sternberg has made and how much value the Glazers are also tells us which college football programs are the country's most valuable.

No big surprises with Texas ($129M) and Notre Dame ($112M) at the top. Penn St. ($100M) is third, but is expected to drop next year following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. LSU, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Auburn, and Oklahoma round out the top 10.

I was surprised to see Florida ($86M) slip to No. 11 since I've reported on the school's monsterous football profits. In fact, Forbes indicates UF is the fourth-most profitable team in the NCAA. But losing Tim Tebow to the NFL reduced the entire Gators team to mere mortals. They still made nearly $50 million in profits last year.

Remember, it's all about the education.

Monday, December 19, 2011

UPDATE: How The Trop is Like Fenway Park

Following yesterday's post about how the Red Sox were able to re-brand an aging Fenway Park - mostly through marketing - one more comparison between "America's Most Beloved Ballpark" and Tropicana Field:

The "big-market" Red Sox haven't always thrived at the box office. Thirty years ago, they only averaged 19,637 fans per game. The Rays' average since 2008 has been 21,761.

In fact, few teams drew more than 25,000 a game in the early 80's. And ticket prices were way lower! And television/merchendising revenues were a fraction of what they are today!

So what changed that 21,761 fans is "unacceptable?" Players' salaries.

Yet MLB contends the problem is not theirs; it's the problem of the baseball fan in regions like Tampa Bay.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

How The Trop is Like Fenway Park

Interesting read from my old friend Steve Buckley in last week's Boston Herald. He writes how Fenway Park once suffered from the same "derelict" identity The Trop has.

Yet, as I've described the Rays' poor marketing of their stadium, Buckley describes how the Red Sox were able to shift opinions and transform Fenway from an eyesore to "America's Most Beloved Ballpark":
(Red Sox owner John) Henry and his associates did a marvelous selling job when they bought the Red Sox. Recognizing that public financing for a new Fenway Park wasn’t going to magically appear, and opting not to invest millions of their own money, they chose to go with a long-term, multi-tiered renovation.

But they didn’t stop there. They came up with the “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” campaign, affixing those words to the side of Fenway on a banner the size of a big-league infield.
The truth, of course, is there was no such competition. With classic Red Sox arrogance, management simply called the printer, ordered up an “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” banner, and the rest is marketing history. The Red Sox have sold out every home game since May 15, 2003, thanks not to hardcore baseball fans, but to tourists who giddily plop down their money in order to say they have taken part in the “Fenway experience.”

As recently as 1995, a reserved grandstand ticket to a Red Sox home game was $12, and bleacher tickets sold for $8 a pop. And now? People pay $12 to take a tour of an empty ballpark. P.T. Barnum would have loved it.
I'm not claiming Tropicana Field is the same as Fenway Park...but it's worth pointing out the parallels.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tampa Mayor Talks Downtown Stadium Again

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he won't "meddle" with the City of St. Pete's contract with the Rays - a contract that has 15 more years on it - he just can't help talking about how much greater a Rays stadium would be in his city:
"We need to be prepared if (a "divorce" from St. Pete) happens to be able to make the case not only to the voters in this community but also to the business community that this is a regional asset, the Rays, that we need to keep. And if that is the case, which I think it is, what is the best location for it. I happen to think it's in downtown Tampa."
Buckhorn acknowledged a point I've made before - that any new stadium outside of Greater St. Pete would likely require a large cash buyout of the use agreement.

But Buckhorn also indicated St. Pete's biggest concern would be $90 million in outstanding debt on the stadium - debt that will be paid off in a few years. I bet if you asked St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, he would tell you his city has a lot more than $90 million in equity invested here.

Furthermore, every time Buckhorn touts Tampa as a suitable alternative to St. Pete, he is playing into the hands of the Rays, who want nothing more than to diminish St. Pete's bargaining power. The blueprint for a new stadium involves pitting one metropolis against another; but since that hasn't happened yet, a St. Pete vs. Tampa tug-of-war will suit just fine.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rich Rays Owner: What Could Have Been

With news that Tampa Bay businessman Frank Morsani donated another $20 million to the University of South Florida, sports fans here can only wonder what would have been if MLB ever awarded the Morsani group a team, as it allegedly promised on numerous occasions.

Morsani even took MLB to court over empty promises, and after 11 years, won a settlement from the league.

Instead, as history would have it, the Twins and Rangers never relocated to Tampa Bay, Wayne Huzienga won the Marlins in 1993, and with Morsani suing MLB, Vince Naimoli won the Rays in 1998. It was an unfortunate outcome for baseball fans on the Gulf Coast who didn't get a sniff of success until Stu Sternberg & co. got their hands on the team the following decade.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Chat with DRaysBay

Had a good chat with the good folks over at Topics de jour: Mayor Bill Foster vs. Stu Sternberg as well as the Miami Marlins vs. the Feds.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bracing for Another Volley in Stadium Saga

Hope you’re enjoying the silence this offseason.

While next week’s 2011 MLB Winter Meetings (Dec. 5-8) mark the unofficial start of the hot stove season for most baseball fans, it represents something different for Rays fans: another chapter in the Rays Stadium Saga.

Inevitably, Stu Sternberg and/or Matt Silverman will answer questions from Marc Topkin about payroll. And inevitably, poor attendance will come up...and reverberate for a week around the sports talk dial.

Bud Selig will also inevitably bang the stadium drug again at his last (unless it’s not his last) annual State-of-the-Game press conference. And inevitably, columnists in Florida will spill ink for three days lamenting the lack of progress in the soap opera.

Sadly, I will not be going to the meetings in Dallas for all the fun, but I will be burning up the keyboards from Tampa Bay as I follow it from afar.

Forbes: Stu Sternberg Getting Richer

An update to my post from March explaining Rays ownership is doing just fine, despite implying the team is struggling to turn a profit; Forbes reports this week:
(Stu) Sternberg, meanwhile, has turned the Tampa Bay Rays into a perennial playoff team by getting a big bang for the buck from his player payroll. The former Goldman, Sachs partner bought the Rays for $200 million in May, 2004 and the team is now worth $331 million, a 66% gain. The stock market is up only 10% since he bought the team.
For those of you counting at home, even if the Rays claim they lost $15-20 million a season (which nobody in their right mind would believe), ownership could still possibly turn a profit if it decided to sell the team right now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Report: Glazers to Spend Millions on Stadium

Malcom Glazer & family certainly have their critics among Bucs fans, but it appears they're hoping to win some people over by kicking back millions of dollars to the community.

Just not the Tampa Bay community.

Reports out of New Orleans indicate the Glazers will join Saints owner Tom Benson in chipping in for a new stadium for the Tulane Green Wave. Of course, the Glazers should have some extra dough around - they didn't have to pay a dime for Raymond James Stadium.

Then again, realize Tulane U's difficult position - it's not like it can threaten to move to a new city if it doesn't get a new stadium.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Orioles Hit Sarasota Up for More Dough

It's a lesson learned in a different stadium saga - warnings ignored in 2009 potentially coming back to haunt Sarasota in its Orioles spring training deal.

The team is now asking the city to kick in an additional $420,000 "to tear up and rebuild fields at its spring training practice grounds, blaming poor drainage on an old city dump buried beneath them."

More than two years ago, I covered a contentious meeting where then-city commissioner Kelly Kirschner warned the city's cost of the ballpark upgrades could balloon:

The fear is construction could cause problems at the site (a former landfill) and while commissioners wanted to cap the city's liability (one idea thrown about was a $1M cap), the Orioles implied they would not sign any deal where they would be responsible for environmental problems.

Commissioner Kelly Kirschner, who voted against the agreement, called it a "blank check" for the Orioles over the course of their time in Sarasota, since they have final say in any and all construction at the site but the city has the

"I'm not sure that's the wisest thing to do in negotiations," said Kirschner. "I would have liked to see more time and talk to some consultants to come up with a better-negotiated solution between the two parties."

"If this were a true partnership, (the Orioles) would be willing to accept a limitation of the city's liability," say Kathy Antunes of "Citizens for Responsible Government," a group against the deal. "Right now, the way this was just approved, they can make any kind of construction plans they want, regardless of how it impacts the environment and cost to the

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that City Manager Bob Bartolotta accused the Orioles of "'trying to make a convoluted argument' to get the city to pay for field upgrades that should have come from a $24 million stadium renovation funded by taxpayers."

And you thought the Rays had the exclusive rights to stadium soap operas in Greater Tampa Bay...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rays' 2012 Ticket Prices Holding Steady

In case you missed it today, the Rays released their 2012 ticket information and there's quite a bit of good news for fans: most tickets will remain the same price.

Supply-and-demand will dictate many other tickets' prices, as the more popular games like those against the Red Sox or Yankees - may see small price increases. However, many tickets for the less-popular games, like those against the Orioles, Royals, and A's, will see some tickets decrease in price.

Beats the heck out of the press they got last year when they kept most ticket prices steady, but raised a few sections drastically. Also beats filling empty seats with the homeless.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New Arena Coming in Tampa

New seats and an organ aren't the only big changes in store for the St. Pete Times Forum this year; with the namesake's announced name change today, the arena is about to get a new name too.

The St. Petersburg Times announced it will become the Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 1, meaning the arena will likely become the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The Lightning haven't confirmed the news yet; they will make their own name change announcement soon.

How Rays' stadium saga will go down (Pt. 2)

I can admit...sometimes I'm wrong.

More than two years ago, I sketched out the longterm blueprint the Rays would use to get a new stadium...and while most of it has come true, I didn't knock every prediction out of the park.

Click here to continue reading.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Buckhorn Sympathetic to Rays' Cause

The more Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn shows a willingness to discuss the Rays Stadium Saga, the more he'll be asked about it. And the more he'll apparently wade into the deep waters on this controversial issue.

"The current business model is not working," Buckhorn was quoted by the Gulf Coast Business Review.

But I have to ask, how does he know? The Rays' business model isn't necessarily to fill the stands; it's to make money. And we have no idea if the team is.

Buckhorn added that he wouldn't hold taxpayers accountable for building a new stadium, nor did he want to interfere with St. Pete's use agreement. But all of that said, he teased a new stadium in Downtown Tampa "would be absolutely transformative to the area."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Foster Gets Caught in "He Said, She Said"

The St. Petersburg Times will report on Thursday that St. Pete mayor Bill Foster may have suggested Stu Sternberg is giving the Rays the Major League treatment; that is, the intentional attendance-tanking owner Rachel Phelps gave the Indians in the movie Major League:
Mayor Bill Foster said Wednesday that he doesn't see the Tampa Bay Rays doing much to market the team in the Tampa Bay area.

But Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala said Foster went a step further when he called her Friday.

" 'I believe that they are deliberately trying to hurt the team financially by not promoting it adequately,' " Latvala recalled Foster telling her.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Lat­vala remembered responding: "Really, really? Why would they do that?"

He didn't answer, but Latvala said she assumed he thought the Rays are trying to depress attendance to gain leverage in their bid for a new stadium.
Foster denied the recount of the event, but suggested the city and county may need to step up and help market the team. The Rays also denied any sort of "tanking" when it comes to marketing.

The Rays sometimes get criticism for not being more visable in the community and not doing enough in the marketing realm. I've even contended .the stadium badmouthing has diminished the perceived "fan experience" at The Trop.

But on the other hand, the Rays provide a lot of added value (giveaways, concerts, etc) to what is already one of baseball's most affordable tickets.

Anti-Stadium Legislation Filed in Florida...Again

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, tells me he will - for a third time - file a bill that would require voter approval for taxpayer-funded stadium subsidies.

Bennett has been fighting public funding for stadiums since the Florida Marlins first came to legislature in 2005, but the previous versions of his bill - in 2009, then again in 2011 - failed to make it out of committees. Bennett blamed lobbyists for Florida's professional sports teams.

"It's time to put this thing to a halt," he said, referring to the leverage teams put on local communities to help fund stadiums.

"People are saying we've got more important things to spend our money on: educating our children, providing better schools, providing better opportunities for our people, and I think that that's what they want to spend the money on."

Bennett added that he doesn't want the Marlins' scenario - where they eventually got local taxpayers to build a new state-of-the-art stadium - to repeat itself with the Tampa Bay Rays. He said he was also irked by blackouts of Buccaneers games in a taxpayer-funded stadium.

The longtime legislator is term-limited out after 2012, but will pitch the stadium bill one more time to his colleagues.

"If you can pay someone $30 million to throw a baseball 90 feet," Bennett said of team owners, "you can probably afford to build your own stadium."

The words were strikingly similar to Bennett's comments from February of this year when he filed the bill for a second time:

"If you can pay someone $52 million to play the game of baseball, certainly you can build your own stadium with your own money."

And in 2005, when he helped kill a bill to provide subsidies for the Marlins, Bennett told the Sports Business Daily, "if you can afford to pay somebody $53 million to throw a baseball 90 feet, you can afford your own damn stadium."

As influential as the Republican has been in Tallahassee, he hasn't always been right:

"You're going to see a drastic change in the way (stadiums) are financed," he said in 2005. "People are finally fed up. And so I think the Marlins and others will be funding their own projects in the future."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Selig Weighs in on Stadium Saga

Times reporter Marc Topkin reported Thursday night that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig had some not-so-endearing comments about the Rays' stadium search while appearing on a SiriusXM radio show:
Said Selig: "I like Stu Sternberg a lot, as you probably know. I have a great deal of respect for him. He's a very thoughtful, very interesting guy, done a great job there, done a brilliant job there. I, too, am concerned about their attendance. I track attendance every day. He knows it. I've talked to him a lot. They are a wonderful organization, produced a terrific team this year and finished last in the American League in attendance. I'll let you draw your own conclusion. That's bad."

Russo then asked, Is the stadium situation in Tampa (Bay) a lost cause?

Selig's response: "I can't answer that yet but I'm usually an optimist and I don't have any reason to be too optimistic."
Sure, Selig said in July he would stay on the sidelines of the stadium stalemate, but we knew it wouldn't be long before he jumped back into the game.

As I wrote at the start of the season, "Expect a steady dose of Sternberg and Bud Selig comments designed to grow that fear (of relocation). It's your choice to buy into it or not."

Going to be a long decade in the Stadium Saga...

Today in the Stadium Saga: St. Pete Council Workshop

The St. Petersburg city council today takes up the Rays Stadium Saga with Mayor Bill Foster, who has taken it on the chin from local papers as he tries to maintain leverage in what could be an eventual legal battle with the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Today's agenda," writes Michael Van Sickler in the St. Petersburg Times, "sets up three items to be discussed today: a history of Major League baseball in St. Petersburg; a review of the agreement; and a discussion of the city's efforts to work with the Rays and chamber groups to promote better attendance, which was second worst in the league."

There may be some interesting soundbytes that come out of the workshop, but don't expect much progress. It has turned into more of a political opportunity for Foster critics than a productive opportunity to advance the Stadium Saga. So to better understand the stadium stalemate, read this primer on what's going on inside Bill Foster's head.

Orlando Jumps Back Into Stadium Saga

Let's put aside the fact the last time WFTV-TV in Orlando reported the city could be pursuing MLB baseball, several teams laughed at them. Instead, let's pretend there's some credibility to Mayor Buddy Dyer's claim that Orlando would support the Rays better than Tampa Bay.

What Dyer fails to recognize is an appetite for another pro team doesn't equate to ability to pay for one. Even in the tourist capital of the U.S., Orlando is on the verge of being economically overextended.

When the bedtax didn't produce the same revenue the city expected the last few years, the city had to table part of a performing arts center project to pay for the bonds on Amway Arena.

Think all those tourists would snatch up Orlando Rays tickets? They didn't when the minor-league Orlando Rays played there. Plus, I can attest the drive from Disney to Downtown Orlando at 6pm is much worse than the drive across the Howard Frankland Bridge from Tampa to St. Pete. And how many Europeans do you know that flock to baseball games when they visit the States?

Then there's the question of whether Orlando residents would regularly go to games themselves. The metro area has significantly less disposable income than the Tampa Bay area and its a significantly smaller television market too.

The only thing Orlando could really provide the Rays right now is leverage. Because we all know the only way teams get publically-funded stadiums is by "blackmailing" cities with a competing city.

There is one more thing all this Orlando talk could provide.....laughs if "Baseball-to-Orlando" guy returns.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tampa Has Money for New Stadium...But Not Much

Richard Danielson reports in today's St. Petersburg Times that the City of Tampa has told local chambers of commerce that it could help dedicate $90 to $100 million over 20 years to a new baseball stadium.

It may sound good at first blush, but not when you realize a new stadium could cost upwards of $550 million. And a potential buyout of St. Pete's use agreement could tack another $100 million on top of that.

It echoes what I wrote 11 months ago today: land isn't the problem in the stadium saga, funding is.

Danielson mentions other funding avenues such as Pinellas County's bed tax, Hillsborough County's Community Investment Tax (sunsets in 2026 and would need to be re-authorized by voters), rental car taxes, and parking surcharges. But in all likelihood, all of the above would be necessary to fund a state-of-the-art stadium.

Which brings up the question - would one community be willing to help pay for a new stadium on the opposite side of the bay? At this point, the answer is a resounding no, and it's become the single-biggest frustration of Rays brass over the years.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rays Brass Suggests Success May Be Sustainable

In a season-ending press conference where Rays' general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon celebrated another successful fall run, both men acknowledged the team's shortfalls at the box office.

But neither would suggest, as principal owner Stuart Sternberg indicated Tuesday, that success was unsustainable in Tampa Bay without a new stadium.

"We're going to be a really talented team next year," Friedman said, sitting alongside Maddon. "We've proven time and time again that it's not necessarily about the payroll number; it's about the talent we have. So, it's easy to use (revenue) as an excuse, but the two of us refuse to do so."

Continue reading here.

Sternberg's Comments Resonate Nationally

It's the same ole', same ole' situation. Stu Sternberg, frustrated with Rays attendance numbers, mentions the Tampa Bay region doesn't have long to figure the situation out and the national writers jump all over it.

Although, there was a bit more sympathy than usual for the fans, especially from's Jim Caple, who wrote fans aren't expected to buy a ton of tickets; merely support their team better (which, of course isn't easy when the owner gets so frustrated with them).

Maury Brown from The Biz of Baseball explains why the Rays aren't going anywhere soon, which is unfortunate for the owners because they deserve better.

Of course, local writers continued to feast on the age-old debate. The most poignant point of view came from The Trib's Joe Henderson, who said "Timing is everything, and Rays owner Stu Sternberg's couldn't have been worse.

"Maybe there was no easy way to deliver the message, again, that Sternberg is fed up with low attendance and sagging revenues," Henderson continued. "But did he have to do so while standing in the middle of the Rays clubhouse, minutes after they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Texas Rangers, concluding one of the great baseball stories in the modern era?"

The Times' John Romano, who has sympathized with the franchise before, writes now that "fans have to stop behaving as if Sternberg is standing in their driveway calling them deadbeats. He is not blaming teachers or truck drivers or retirees. He is saying his team does not generate enough revenue to keep up with 90 percent of the other major-league teams. And that's a legitimate complaint."

Personally, I disagree - it's not a legitimate complaint until the Rays show it's true. But since they won't open their books, how do we know baseball's revenue-sharing model, designed to help less-wealthy teams compete with wealthy teams isn't working?

Romano also writes that the Rays' model isn't sustainable long-term, but it ignores the huge windfall the team stands to gain in 2016 (or sooner) when it signs a new TV deal.

Then, there's the often-outlandish Bleacher Report, which actually laid out the region's problems quite well and one possible solution: let Bud Selig force the Tampa Bay's hand.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rays 2011 Attendance Post-Mortem

It was a virtual certainty that we'd have another round of attendance criticisms as the Rays wrap up another successful season on-the-field, and sure enough, two new front-page stories in the Tampa Bay papers today. Oh, and an story too. Maybe they were warranted.

"When I came in here in '05 and '06, I saw the stars," Rays Principal Owner Stu Sternberg said with regards to his 29th-best average attendance of 18,878. "I was told by you guys and others that all we needed was a winning team...well, we won. We won. We won. And we won. And it didn't do it."

You've got to sympathize with Stu in that he's done everything a business owner can do for a community and it hasn't reaped huge rewards for his business. But the question is, how much of his business miscalculation becomes the community's burden? If a new stadium is the answer, how much of the responsibility for building it belongs to the region?

Then again, I may be misinterpreting Sternberg's comments. Maybe he's resigning to the fact that the area will never draw 25,000 fans per game?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rays' Attendance: Maybe it's Not the Location

Long before Stu Sternberg took to his soapbox, I pointed out the problem with Tropicana Field had nothing to do with the venue, but its location. I'm wondering now if I was a little bit wrong.

As the Rays post sorry attendance numbers for a Yankees series with playoff implications, every writer in Florida is trying to find a new spin on the same old story (as predicted).

But the excuses - the stadium's condition, then the economy, then the location - are growing old.

"I don't want to hear that it's the location," former ABC Coalition member Craig Sher told the Tampa Tribune. "It is what it is. (Tropicana Field is) air conditioned. It's nice. (This week's opponents are) the New York Yankees. I surely hope they sell out. It has to be tremendous walk-up sales."

It wasn't. 22,820 Tuesday after 18,772 Monday. And it can only be explained by the region's attitude toward baseball.

Floridians aren't used to driving 60 minutes for a baseball experience, and as Boston Globe columnist Nick Cafardo pointed out, MLB and Sternberg underestimated Floridians' desires to drive to baseball games.

If you handed someone in Connecticut a free Yankees or Red Sox ticket, there's a good chance they'd travel 90 minutes to the game. If you handed someone in Tampa a free Rays ticket, they probably wouldn't drive 30.

Shifting attitudes of a football-minded fan base takes time. More than the 13 years the Rays have existed.

But shifting attitudes also takes constant reinforcement of the message and the Rays have grown frustrated and impatient.

Sternberg and team president Matt Silveman have committed to putting a winner on the field - and essentially executed to perfection - but they often contradict the message to fans when it comes to marketing. They subtly point the finger at their fans for not drawing like most other MLB teams.

Telling fans baseball won't succeed in Tampa Bay without a new stadium may be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Rays, but it didn't have to be that way. They could have worked on the attitudes first and gotten the stadium down the road.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Stadium Irony Can Be So Ironic

If you wonder why the Tampa Bay region is so hesitant to build a taxpayer-funded stadium for the Rays, you only need to read this article from the Cincinnati Enquirer or this summary from Field of Schemes.

The Cincinnati region faces a huge shortfall on the bonds for its two riverfront stadiums:
The deficit in the fund that pays for Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park could be as much as $14 million next year, grows to $46 million in 2013 and eventually could cumulatively reach $480 million if nothing is done.
That leaves Hamilton County (Ohio) with few options, like the bleak situation Orlando faced when building Amway Arena.

Field of Schemes author Neil deMause writes that Orlando "scrapped a planned performing arts center and cut back on police, fire, and road services to fill funding shortfalls on the Magic's new arena."

He's also interviewed in the Enquirer article:
Hamilton County commissioners, through negotiations, public pressure or lawsuits, keep trying to force the Bengals and Reds to cut new deals. But that rarely works, deMause said.

"The teams say, 'You made a deal and if you got the short end of the stick, that's not our problem,'" he said.
The irony, of course, is the opposite seems to be true when franchises make bad deals.

Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg has admitted he overestimated the willingness of fans to drive to St. Petersburg when he bought the team in 2006. But despite 16 years left on a 30-year deal at The Trop, he's made it clear he expects a new ballpark built if Tampa Bay expects to keep the Rays in town.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are Tampa Bay's Stadium Concessions Clean?

A year after a scathing national report ripped the cleanliness of Florida stadiums' concession stands, Tampa's largest sporting venues have showed modest improvement in reducing risks to consumers.

Concession stands that were racking up a dozen "critical violations" at a time have trimmed the number down considerably, but most concession stands at Raymond James Stadium and Tropicana Field still were cited for risks by state health inspectors during random visits. At the St. Pete Times Forum, almost half of all concession stands received "critical" violations.

Click here to continue reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rays Attendance Watch: September 25

The Rays are on the verge of completing an unlikely, unprecidented, and largely unbelievable comeback in the Wild Card standings, but most of Tampa Bay probably hasn't noticed yet.

Competing against a full slate of football games, the Rays drew just 21,008 for their final Sunday afternoon game of the regular season. On Saturday night, with country singer Miranda Lambert performing after, the Rays drew just 27,773. On Friday night, just 18,093.

Those numbers are bad.

With three games left on the schedule - all against the Yankees - the Rays (18,663 avg) have a chance to climb past the Marlins (18,740) in MLB's attendance rankings...all the way up to 28th. A season-ending series against the Yankees with the Wild Card on the line should be enough to pack the pews in St. Pete, but regardless of playoff fortunes, you can be sure there will be another round of reminders this week about how poorly-attended games at The Trop have been.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sox Writers Take Note of Rays, Stadium Saga

Fantastic take on the Rays' situation from the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo:
The bottom line appears to be all that is stopping the Rays. By now, it should be apparent that baseball and Florida do not go well together. There’s a reason the two Florida teams have the two worst attendances in baseball.
The Marlins, who are a mess in a lot of ways, will move to a brand new home next April, with all kinds of bells and whistles. But you still wonder whether it will matter to their attendance. Obviously, there will be an initial rush to see the new place, but after that, what?

The Rays simply can’t get a stadium built. It’s baffling why people in the Tampa/St. Pete area make such a big deal about driving over the bridge to St. Pete. It really isn’t that bad, is it?

How much more can Rays owner Stuart Sternberg stretch that payroll? Sure, attendance is low, but the money from revenue-sharing and TV is pretty decent. Could their $45 million budget be
stretched to $55 million to get a big-time hitter, even if (OMG!) it means less of a profit?

Only their accountants know for sure.

The Rays do a lot of things right. They are swiftly becoming a model franchise, causing New York and Boston a little discomfort. The payroll disparity is huge, yet they always seem to be in the mix.

In six short grafs, Cafardo sums up the Stadium Saga perfectly:
  • MLB and Stu Sternberg underestimated Floridians' desires to drive to baseball games;

  • The Rays are making decent money from revenue-sharing and TV,

  • But we'll never know how much profit they're making because they don't open their books;

  • Despite all that, ownership continues to defy the odds and put a winner on the field.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Privately-Funded Stadium Failing; City Considers Bailout

Think you can build a stadium these days with only private funds? So did the owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets, but then he went broke...and the city is now considering a bailout.

As I've written before, of the dozens of baseball, basketball, and hockey venues built in the last 49 years, just one was successfully built without public support - AT&T Park - and even the Giants admit they caught "lightning in a bottle" with their timing.

Even in the NFL, where owners' revenues dwarf those of their pro sports bretheren, just one stadium was built without public dollars: Gilette Stadium in New England, where corporations are tripping over themselves to sponsor a piece of the Patriots.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bucs to Honor Selmon; Nobody to Witness it

I had heard this question asked several times this week, but never so elequently as a Tampa Tribune reader did this morning:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are planning a tribute to Lee Roy Selmon during the Lions game on Sunday. Unfortunately, the game will most likely be blacked out in the local area, so the only fans who will see or hear the tribute will be those in attendance.

For months now we have heard how football, the National Football League and the Bucs are about the fans. If this is indeed true, I propose the Glazers do the right thing with Lee Roy's tribute and lift the blackout so that every fan in the area can be a part of it.

In the spirit of Lee Roy and giving back to the community, as he did, the Glazers should buy out the remaining tickets so the blackout is lifted, and then donate the tickets to firefighters, police officers and the local military. What better way to honor our first responders on the anniversary of 9/11 than on a day when we also honor one of Tampa's finest, Lee Roy Selmon.
A few years ago, the Glazers would have probably bought out the rest of the tickets. But there's a lot fewer fans than there used to be....and the Bucs aren't worth nearly what they used to be.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Times Continues to Rip Foster; Sternberg Gets Free Pass

Just two weeks after it's last over-the-top criticism of Mayor Bill Foster, the St. Petersburg Times Editorial Board unleashed another attack this weekend, calling Foster "The Minor League Mayor":
To his credit, Foster offered last year to allow the Rays to look within St. Petersburg and just outside the city limits for potential stadium sites. Since then, it's been all strikeouts and errors. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg reasonably wants to look at the entire market, including Tampa. Foster has refused, alternately snubbing and encouraging business leaders, discouraging public officials from talking, and threatening legal action. The mayor has generally treated the Rays as a courtroom adversary rather than a significant business that contributes to the civic and economic life of the entire region.
In its effort to encourage a regional discussion for a future Rays home, the Times is merely diminishing St. Pete's leverage in negotiations and encouraging a Tampa vs. St. Pete war.

While they acknowledge Foster has offered a compromise, they give a free pass to Sternberg for ignoring it. The reason the Rays don't want to bother exploring sites in Pinellas is because they've already studied them....and every other potential site in Tampa Bay.

The Rays want a region-wide search so they can trumpet Tampa as a better location for a park and really increase the pressure on Foster. Which is exactly the reason why Foster doesn't want to let them (publically) explore Tampa.

The editorial continues:
While he is understandably frustrated, Sternberg should come off the sidelines. Allowing the Rays to study potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a limited time is worth something. Sternberg should make a reasonable offer to St. Petersburg after the season and ask the City Council to vote on it or make a counteroffer. He also should open the Rays' financial books to confirm that the franchise is not making mountains of money.
The Times has suggested Sternberg should open the team's books and make a "reasonable offer" to St. Pete before. But he won't. So the question is, will the Times continue to give him the benefit of the doubt or will it criticize him the way they criticize Foster's negotiating tactics?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Rays to Nashville? Fat Chance

The talk about the Rays playing in Nashville is fun and all, but it's 100 percent unrealistic. Not only is Nashville a significantly smaller media market than Tampa Bay (read: fewer TV dollars), but its already financially overextended with its two current sports teams.

A recent study looked at the abilities of the 59 biggest U.S. communities without MLB to support a team. Nashville ranked 56th (Charlotte was 53rd). The report concluded the only metropolis in a position to add a MLB team would be Riverside-San Bernardino (Calif.) - not exactly a market that strikes fear in the heart of Tampa Bay's politicians.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Last Time We Hear About Glazers' Financial Problems

After record profits, significant debt payment, and an impending IPO which could return another $1 biliion, it's safe to say the Glazers are is no longer over-extended.

The family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has used the mega-marketing power of Manchester United to dig out of a hole after the economy collapsed in 2007/2008.

Although they seemed to have owed more than Man U was worth in 2010, Malcolm, Joel, Bryan, and company have seemed to have put the financial concerns behind them.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mayor Foster Confirms Slip of Tongue

I called it "miscalculated politicking;" Mayor Bill Foster called it "erroneous speculation brought about by my own words."

Either way, Foster confirmed today what I wrote last week, that he let his mouth run a little too loosely when he told city council he had a "plan" to keep the Tampa Bay Rays.

Of course, he confirmed his "plan" was nothing new either, which is why the Stadium Saga will be played out in years, not months.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mayor Foster Confirms No "Secret" Rays Plans

With a two-page letter to the St. Petersburg Times, Mayor Bill Foster confirms what I wrote 11 days ago: there is no secret plan for a new Rays stadium.

Foster penned:
My plan consists of three strategic elements: 1) ensuring that the legal integrity of the city's agreement with the Rays is not compromised; 2) supporting private sector efforts to retain the Rays as a regional asset without compromising the city's agreement with the Rays; and 3) continuing to support and promote the Rays as a professional sports franchise in west-central Florida.
He goes on to say his job is to protect the interests of St. Petersburg first and not to compromise "the position of the city in its future dealings with the Rays."

So the Rays won't talk to Foster and Foster won't compromise at this point. But fortunately for anyone following the stadium saga, the Rays - as first reported here - are willing to talk to the private business groups trying to facilitate negotiations.

The progress will be slow, but at least there's a glimmer of (longterm) hope. I'll explain more later this week....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

UPDATE: Bill Foster's "Detailed Plan"

The St. Petersburg Times loves to hate Mayor Bill Foster. For a couple of weeks now, the paper has been cranking up the heat on the city's leader for not being more open.

What's ironic, is the mayor is being fairly open - and honest - when he says there's nothing going on with him and the Rays. But, for all his missteps in the court of public opinion, he does have a plan. And, according to Michael Sasso from the Tampa Tribune, it means more lawyers in case the silent treatment from the Rays and MLB continues:
Various reports have claimed that Major League Baseball might "contract" one or more teams out of existence, including the Rays. Other reports suggest the Rays would move the team out of the city.

St. Petersburg has no reason to believe the team actually plans to do that, but the city needs to be prepared just in case, Wolfe said. So, the city has contacted several firms with experience representing governments in disputes with professional ball clubs.

For example, it reached out to a law firm that represented the owner of the Metrodome in Minneapolis when baseball's Twins wanted to leave early, Wolfe said. He didn't specify the lawsuit, but presumably he was speaking about the 2001 lawsuit that pitted the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission against the Twins.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rays Attendance Watch: Rough Weekend at Trop

Despite a much-needed three-game sweep of the visiting Seattle Mariners and some cool David Price giveaways, it wasn't a terribly successful weekend for the Rays at the gate.

The attendance for the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night games at The Trop was 14,884, 20,148, and 17,226, respectively. The season average dropped to 19,234 (28th in MLB).

The Rays still have some big series left on the schedule, but unless they go on a 1978 Yankees-like stretch run, it appears likely they'll post a sub-20,000 attendance average for the first time since 2007.

You can blame the economy, the stadium, frustration with the stadium saga, and high-def TV, because it's likely a combination of all factors.

But ponder this: 50 years ago, 19,234 would be good enough for fourth place in MLB. Forty years ago, it would have been good for seventh. And 30 years ago, it still would have been in the top half of all teams.

So while their 19,234 average at the moment isn't a particularly pretty number, it could be worse for the Rays. At least the St. Petersburg Times is hammering Stu Sternberg's nemesis, Mayor Bill Foster. (Read about Foster's "secret" plan here)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mayor Foster's Secret "Detailed Plan"

Mayor Bill Foster's comment to city council Thursday that he has a "detailed plan" to keep the Rays is nothing more than miscalculated politicking.

Foster, who wants city council to stop diminishing the city's leverage in the stadium saga by suggesting possible concessions to the Rays, said he had a "plan" so council would stop pressuring him in public. Foster has been briefing council members individually on the issue, even though the Rays haven't spoken to him in months.

The St. Petersburg Times reports:
"I am very content with the communication with the administration,'' Kennedy said. "If the Rays are interested in having discussions they should call the mayor.''

Foster concurred that public meetings make for an awkward forum.

"We can't play this poker hand in the sunshine, without weakening our position,'' he said. "When the time comes, when they are ready to come to the table, it will be publicly discussed and be in the sunshine. We can't do anything to weaken our position, which is why I'm willing to come to you individually.''
Since I've already explained What Mayor Bill Foster is Thinking, it makes sense that his "plan" is nothing more than to stop letting the issue play itself out in public. Foster doesn't like that the Rays have essentially issued an ultimatim: let us out of the use agreement or we'll continue the public pressure.

Of course, the Rays are thinking the more the issue plays itself out in the papers, the more pressure put on Foster to make concessions. The team has communicated with local business groups interested in fostering regional stadium efforts.

And although it will take years, the Rays are hoping the pressure on St. Pete will eventually help turn the tides so multiple counties can get behind an affordable financing plan for a new venue.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Times Editorial Board Cranks Up Pressure on Mayor Foster

The St. Petersburg Times Editorial Board will print its "Five questions for the mayor on Rays" tomorrow morning and join Councilwoman Leslie Curran in pressuring Bill Foster to break his silent stalemate with the franchise. But to assume the fault belongs solely on the shoulders of the mayor is only one of the board's poor assumptions.
When the City Council discusses the issue today, here are five questions council members should ask the mayor:

1 Why do you fear allowing the Rays to evaluate potential stadium sites in Tampa?
Despite the Rays' lack of interest in a new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, the city has a number of assets: the long-term stadium lease, publicly owned land, interstate access and a revenue stream of public money that could be redirected from Tropicana Field to help pay for a new stadium. Let's see how that stacks up to what the Rays might find in Tampa, whose assets include a broader business base and possibly shorter driving times for more fans.
Mayor Foster, as I've written before, is afraid of a Tampa vs. St. Pete competition. To allow the two cities to compete against each other means one side could overextend itself again in order to make the Rays happy. He sees it as his job to protect St. Pete's interests, and that means avoiding a Tampa vs. St. Pete war.
2 What could St. Petersburg receive in return for allowing a broader search of stadium sites?
Allowing the Rays to look in Hills­borough is worth something. Reasonable negotiators could agree on fair compensation that would allow the Rays to look only in Pinellas and Hillsborough for a limited time, and the city still has the long-term lease.
This point is valid; if St. Pete could get a payment in exchange for allowing the Rays to explore Tampa, Foster might jump at the chance. But I'm not sure the Rays would.
3 How does refusing to allow the Rays to look at possible stadium sites in Hillsborough benefit the city's negotiating position?
Every year that goes by, the less that is owed on the bonds that paid for the Trop and the less time that remains on the stadium lease, which expires in 2027. The city's leverage decreases as the clock ticks, and it becomes less expensive for the Rays to buy their way out or for a future owner to move the team and fight in court.
But, the Times fails to acknowledge, every year that goes by also means another year of Rays baseball in St. Petersburg, supposedly worth more than whatever buy-out might be proposed.
4 What are the long-term time lines and financial considerations?
Studying stadium sites, identifying revenue options and building public support takes time. A stadium is not going to be built soon, but Tampa Bay should be poised to move when the economy recovers.

St. Petersburg should study all of its options. The Tropicana Field site was attractive to developers when the Rays proposed their ill-fated waterfront stadium, and it will be again when the economy revives. Compare the cost of building a stadium and the economic impact of Major League Baseball in the city to saving the money a new stadium would cost, selling the Trop site to private developers, revitalizing that portion of the city and bringing spring training back to St. Petersburg. The more information, the better informed the decisions.
I guess the question is, "what's there to study?" If the Rays maintain location is the big reason people aren't coming to The Trop, why bother conducting studies that would suggest another Pinellas location would be better? Especially since any regional search would yield what's a forgone conclusion: Tampa is a better location for the stadium. It would crush Foster's leverage in the negotiation.
5 If the Rays do not want a new stadium in St. Petersburg, would you rather residents drive to Tampa to see their favorite players or fly to Charlotte?
Not only do I believe the Rays want to stay in Tampa Bay, where they've built considerable equity, but I don't think Charlotte is anywhere close to being in a position to lure a new team. All Charlotte represents right now - and the Times falls into the trap perfectly - is a city MLB would like to use to "blackmail" Tampa Bay, just as they did eith Tampa Bay for so many years.

Rays Still Talking Stadium, Just Not to St. Petersburg

Frustrated by the lack of progress on the Rays' hunt for a new stadium, city council member Leslie Curran says she's anxious to know what the city can do to break the deadlock. She'll ask Mayor Bill Foster and the city's legal team for an update at Thursday afternoon's council meeting.

Foster, who wouldn't comment on the new agenda item, isn't expected to say much. The mayor has briefed council members individually on progress and the lack thereof.

Foster has publicly said the city is comfortable with its current use agreement, a seemingly-strong document that binds the Rays to Tropicana Field until 2027.

"My door is open... but right now, (the Rays) haven't approached (long-term talks)," Foster said in March.

It's believed Foster has met with Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg just once since then.

The Rays, meanwhile, have been more forthcoming with a number of other groups working toward a stadium solution. 10 News has confirmed representatives from the team have spoken with the Clutch Hitters, a pro-baseball business group, and a stadium financing caucus put together by the St. Pete Area and Greater Tampa Chambers of Commerce.

Continue reading here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Update: Manchester United Seeks Singapore IPO

It was a month ago we saw the first reports from London that the Glazers may take Manchester United public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and today the Wall Street Journal reports the rumor was true...except the IPO will be in Singapore:

U.K. soccer club Manchester United Ltd. is planning to raise around $1 billion from a Singapore initial public offering in the fourth quarter, people familiar with the situation said Tuesday, in the latest foreign listing to tap Asia's funding markets.
The club, which was once listed on the London Stock Exchange as Manchester United PLC, had initial planned to list in Hong Kong, but changed its mind and has now picked Singapore as a listing venue, the people said.

Singapore has been pushing to position itself as one of the preferred destinations for foreign listings in a bid to compete with Hong Kong, which this year has seen companies such as commodities giant Glencore International AG raise $10 billion ahead of London and Hong Kong listings in May, and Prada SpA, which raised $2.15 billion in June.
Manchester United was delisted in 2005 after U.S. investor Malcolm Glazer bought the club.

Forbes this year ranked Manchester United as the world's most valuable football team in 2011, valuing the club at $1.86 billion. The club is one of U.K.'s most successful, having been crowned English league champions 19 times and European champions three times in its 133-year history.

Last week, reports indicated the Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, would sell off between 15 and 25 percent of the club in its IPO, but a $1 billion offering would appear to be more than a quarter of the club's value.

Monday, August 15, 2011

New Venture for "Baseball in Orlando Guy"

Armando Gutierrez may be moving on from his efforts to land minor-league baseball in Orlando. The Orlando Sentinel reports:
Businessman Armando Gutierrez Jr. is back, and he’s creating a federal political fundraising operation with Republican consultant Slater Bayliss called Maverick PAC Florida.

The effort is aimed at young-ish “Next Generation” Republicans, under the age of 45. Hopefully they can still write big checks, no?
MAVPAC Florida doesn't reference what's going on with "Baseball in Orlando," but conservative supporters of the committee had better hope it goes better than his bid for baseball and his bid for Congress.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stadium Stalemate is Because Tampa Bay Won't Embrace Multi-County Tax

As I wrote on today, the head of the grass-roots business group, "The Clutch Hitters," met with St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster today. He told me it was just a casual chat, and there's little reason why it would ever be more than that.

The Clutch Hitters are doing a noble thing and encouraging local leaders to think regionally for the sake a new stadium. They aren't advocating location or even revenue streams, just discussion.

But the group isn't telling Foster, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, or anyone else in positions of power things they don't already know (Foster admitted it in 2009). The only way to get a new stadium built is with public money, and it will take a multi-county effort (like in Colorado, Minnesota, Milwaukee, etc) to come up with enough.

So right now, as The Clutch Hitters encourage regional cooperation and the area's two biggest Chambers of Commerce "explore financing possibilities," any discussion of stadium location is taboo. Because as easy as a tenth-of-a-cent sales tax would be to swallow for some people, few in St. Pete would get on-board with the plan if the stadium was built in Tampa. Likewise, few in Tampa would support their dollars going toward another Pinellas stadium.

The Chambers and Hitters both know a regional revenue stream is the first step toward a new stadium, but nobody - including the Rays - know how to get there. Every time stadium financing is raised, stadium location dominates the discussion.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

REPORT: Glazers to Sell Part of Man U

Reports out of London are that the Glazer family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could sell off between 15 and 25 percent of Manchester United to get out from some of their well-documented debt problems:

Shares in Manchester United are again up for sale.

But the plan to put a stake of the world’s most famous football club back on the market will only strengthen the Glazer family’s grip on power at Old Trafford.

Sunday Mirror Sport understands that United’s reviled American owners are preparing to sell up to a quarter of the club in a move that could raise more than £400million.

That would enable them to slash the £500m debts that are currently costing United £45million-a-year to service.

And the Glazers would then be able to pay themselves – and other new investors – millions in dividends every year.

Investment giants UBS are advising on the sale which is called an Initial Public Offering.

The Glazers are looking to cash in on between 15% and 25% of United.

They value the club at £1.7billion – an astonishing increase on the £800m they paid when purchasing the Reds in an £800m leveraged buy-out that split the club apart in May 2005.
The report, from Sunday Mirror Sport, speculates the Glazers want to retain 75 percent of the club, and thus, full control.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mid-Week Subsidy Updates

I suggested Hillsborough County and Tampa leaders would learn a lesson from their public subsidy hand-out to PricewaterhouseCoopers last week. Sure enough, they're still red in the cheek from the deal, which Pricewaterhouse called off after public outcry. But as the St. Petersburg Times suggested, officials may have been "unprepared" for the subsidy talk. I think most owners of sports teams across the country would tell you most public officials are unprepared for the heavy-duty negotiations.

And while it's a good thing that "The Clutch Hitters" are now lobbying for more talks in the Rays' Stadium Saga, it's just another step in the long, ugly process of how stadium deals go down.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rays Stadium Saga is MLB's Problem

Yesterday, I wrote how the Rays' Stadium Saga is like the U.S. debt ceiling debate. Except, of course, MLB could keep going down the same path and remain profitable.

But the issue deserves more attention because despite all the noise about small-market teams losing money, MLB has had an anti-trust exemption for almost 90 years and, in many ways, functions as a single business, not 30 individual businesses (see how they're trying to rescue the Dodgers).

With $7B in revenue last year, there's plenty of profit in MLB to go around. And although revenue sharing is considered by some a crutch and a problem, it's neither; revenue sharing is a symptom of the league allowing teams to spend dollars proportional to their cities' size (because its more profitable that way).

As much as the Steinbrenners and Lucchino/Werner/Henry clans may want revenue sharing reduced, it will remain an important part of the MLB business model as long as salaries continue to grow (which they will). But since the big clubs profit more if the smaller clubs profit more, a stadium in Tampa Bay is so important to everyone in the league.

A good point is raised by Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball, who says MLB owners already padded their pockets on the backs of Tampa Bay:
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.
The stadium debate isn't about the Rays - it's about the profits of all 30 MLB clubs. If simply building a new stadium was the instant fix some people suggest, MLB would step in to help close the $200 million funding gap Tampa Bay faces in building a $500-$600 million stadium. But it's not. Unfortunately, the stadium debate is much like the national debt debate and there's no instant fix.

The problem in Tampa Bay isn't just about the fans or the market - it's about MLB. It allowed its business expenses to skyrocket, and now it wants you to help fix it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How the Rays Stadium Saga is Like the National Debt Debate

We already know the Trop is like Pensacola Beach after an oil spill and the Rays are like "Big Oil," but the stalemate in the Stadium Saga has remarkable comparisons to the national debt showdown.

While the Rays have indicated they aren't generating enough revenue to remain competitive in the long-term, the same question many in Washington are asking should be asked here: does MLB really just have a spending problem?

Last year I suggested the Rays' inability to "keep up with the Joneses" was because MLB allowed major-market teams to jack up the going rate for star players:
You have teams like the Rays - very well-run and successful in player-development - that still can't compete in the standings every year because they can't compete on the free agent market.
This is a serious flaw in the game right now.

Whether the problem lies in revenue sharing or the league's inability to reign in the spending of major-market teams, the result is the same - teams like the Rays have no choice but to settle for long-term mediocrity...or plead for public dollars.

That's not the fault of the Rays' front office or its Tampa Bay fan base.

That's the fault of the Yankees, the Red Sox, Major League Baseball, and the mighty MLB Players' Association; all the parties that let the businesses' overhead (player salaries) grow faster than many cities can bear.
Unfortunately, the Stadium Saga is unlike the nation's debt debate in one way - there seems to be no foregone conclusion at the end of this predictable discussion.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tampa Learning Lesson St. Pete Already Learned

Much like St. Pete learned three years ago, Tampa and Hillsborough Co. are learning a tough lesson: voters hate it when public deals are negotiated in private.

Similarly to how the Rays' failed waterfront stadium deal went down, officials in Tampa are trying to wipe the egg off their face after agreeing to hand over $1+ million in incentives to a large mystery company "considering" a move out of town.

That business turned out to be PricewaterhouseCoopers, and it turns out it may not have ever been leaving the region in the first place.

My guess is, Hillsborough leaders will ask smarter questions the next time they're presented with a similar situation.

But the jury is still out as to whether leaders will act any different when it's a sports team - the Rays - asking, "please help subsidize our expansion or else we're leaving?"

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Times Editorial Board Makes Another Stadium Plea

There were a pair of thoughtful commentaries in this morning's St. Petersburg Times on the stadium saga.

Columnist John Romano contends (with good reason) the biggest problem for the Rays is the lack of business support - largely because of the stadium's location in St. Petersburg, rather than Tampa.

The paper's editorial board took a much more aggressive approach, pleading with Mayor Bill Foster and Rays management to end their stalemate. The board places most of the blame on Foster for protecting his community's investments above the greater good of the Tampa Bay region:
It seems everyone recognizes a sense of urgency to get serious and think regionally except Foster, who hasn't budged in a year. That's not good for St. Petersburg taxpayers or the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.

Foster refuses to accept the reality that Tampa Bay is one market and that the Rays and the community need to explore potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The mayor's offer last year to let the Rays look at sites outside St. Petersburg in mid Pinellas was a positive first step, but it did not go far enough. It's not reasonable to declare Hillsborough off limits, just as it would not be reasonable for the Rays to rule out Pinellas County without looking at the entire market. The Tampa Bay region has matured beyond such narrow thinking on issues ranging from drinking water to transit to higher education, and professional sports requires the same kind of broader vision.

Foster pointed out last week during the dustup over the Trop's shortcomings that he is the mayor of St. Petersburg, not Tampa Bay. But his refusal to compromise with the Rays is no way to treat any prominent business, and it is not in the long-term financial interests of city taxpayers. Every month that clicks off the calendar with no movement is a month closer to paying off the stadium bonds and to the 2027 expiration of the lease. Every month that goes by with no action costs the city leverage and makes it less expensive for the Rays to break the lease or, more likely, starve the team financially and stall for more time.
The editorial makes good points, but it neglects to acknowledge one thing - Foster has said he's waiting on the Rays to sit down and talk and so far, they haven't been interested.
It should not be this difficult to break this deadlock. Foster should negotiate an agreement with the Rays that would allow them to study stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hills­borough counties for a specific time period in return for compensation that recognizes St. Petersburg's civic and financial commitment to baseball. The Rays would have to commit to thoroughly considering sites in both counties, and the city still would hold the Trop lease as its trump card.
The Times is asking Foster to simply give up some of his leverage on the team right now, a concession the mayor seems unlikely to make. The way he sees it, doing nothing ensures the region at least 15 more years of Rays baseball. While it's not going to get Tampa Bay very far in its quest to keep the Rays for generations to come, it's a risk Foster seems willing to take in a bad economy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tampa Yankees Won't Move to Orlando

It seemed like a foregone conclusion (I wrote about it in this space a year ago), but the far-fetched plan to move the Tampa Yankees to Orlando appears dead.

Armando Gutierrez, the 29-year-old businessman who has held multiple press conferences promising Central Florida the moon (it started with a pledge to bring MLB to the area), has struck out. Time to roll back up the proverbial "mission accomplished" banner.

Mission Accomplished

Despite an online campaign to urge Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to support a land giveaway, "Baseball in Orlando" was rebuffed Wednesday as Jacobs terminated their quest for land next to the Orange Co. Convention Center. The mayor cited the group's inflated attendance projections and discounted rent offer.

You can read more about Gutierrez' struggles to bring the Yankees to Orlando here, but we probably still haven't heard the last from him. He's proven very stubborn in his attempts so far.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Maybe the Rays Don't Hate The Trop

Does Joe Maddon really hate The Trop? Or is he just talking to the baseball gods?

Last year on August 5, Joe Maddon ripped The Trop after a catwalk played a role in a loss. A month later, he "made amends" after the Rays won a game with a near-catwalk strike.

This year on July 19, Maddon ripped The Trop after consecutive nights of stadium delays. But that same night, after Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson lost a ball in the stadium lights, he again apologized.

Coincidence? Or is Maddon really the smartest man in baseball?

Also, at least one player told the Tampa Tribune people should just get over it:
Monday's delay was weather related, and Rays pitcher J.P. Howell pointed out Tuesday that if it weren't for the roof and the catwalks that keep it in place, the game would have been delayed a lot longer because of the thunderstorm raging outside the stadium.

"Whatever," Howell said of the criticism lobbed at the Trop. "There's a (flag) pole in Houston right in the middle of the playing field in the outfield. Some stadiums have short porches, and I think that's ridiculous. In those places it's a unique thing. In the old Twins stadium you couldn't see fly balls because of the ceiling, that's part of the gig. That's the only home field advantage we have, and it's not really an advantage."

Stadium Saga Re-Focuses on Money...and Logic

Times columnist John Romano makes a great point in this morning's paper: the stadium issue "all comes back to money."

The column echoes mine from November 2010, when I said the debate about stadium location was moot until they discovered a magical pot of money somewhere....or discussed a regional-funding effort.

While Romano has been way off-base at times on the stadium issue , he was also critical of Rays' manager Joe Maddon in 2010 the last time the skipper criticized the stadium.

Now, he fine-tunes his tone on the matter, bringing about some relevant points:

Catwalks, broken lights and ESPN blowhards have no business in the discussion of whether the Tampa Bay area needs to consider the construction of a new stadium.

When Rays manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday that Tropicana Field was improper for Major League Baseball after 14 seasons, it sounded almost as silly as St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster once saying the catwalks were the equivalent of Wrigley Field's ivy.

This isn't about artificial turf or low-hanging speakers or lightning strikes on national television. This is about money. And it is about the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. And it might even be about the city of St. Petersburg's reputation and its ultimate direction.

Romano goes on to say "Attendance and revenue streams at Tropicana Field are not sufficient for Major League Baseball's needs" - a point may take issue with since MLB hasn't provided any evidence of this.

But Romano hits the nails on the head when it comes to what's going on inside the head of Stu Sternberg: "Stu Sternberg (isn't) going broke...the Rays are (simply) making far less money than 90-95 percent of their baseball business partners."

The column continues by applauding Sternberg for saving the Rays franchise and making it a winner, but applauds St. Petersburg for building a stadium on the backs of taxpayers.

Romano says it comes down to the commissioner:
Bud Selig needs to acknowledge that MLB owes St. Petersburg a debt. We were his street corner tart for more than a decade, helping stadiums get built in other markets. Maybe that doesn't get us a lifetime pass, but MLB is flush with enough cash that it needs to take an active part in any new stadium discussions here.
But tougher questions about the stadium saga are posed by Field of Schemes' Neil deMause:
There's no doubt that Maddon and Silverman would love a new workplace — hey, who wouldn't? — but some of their complaints border on the bizarre: Rain is a "disruption to the game"? Rays players can't focus on baseball because they're worried that other cities are making fun of them? And, for that matter, how exactly is a shattered lightbulb — the first in nearly 14 seasons of games at the Trop — an indication that the whole place needs to be torn down (as opposed to, say, switching to sturdier light fixtures)?
The real question that should be asked, meanwhile, is if the Trop is really "improper for Major League Baseball," why so many teams threatened to move there in the '80s and '90s in order to extract new stadiums from their home cities (off the top of my head: the White Sox, Indians, Giants, Rangers, and at least two or three more that I'm forgetting); not to mention why MLB ultimately gave St. Petersburg an expansion franchise in 1998 despite knowing where their home park would be. Has the definition of "improper" really changed that much in 13 years? If rain is now an unacceptable distraction, I guess maybe...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Matt Silverman Chimes In on Stadium Saga

And Rays President Matt Silverman joins in on the Trop-bashing too:
In a statement released to the media today Silverman said, "Joe speaks from the heart, and I agree with what he said. It’s hard to combat the national media’s depiction of our stadium. Our situation has become a distraction. It is affecting the clubhouse, and it spills over onto the field of play. It damages the national reputation of St. Pete and Tampa Bay, and it harms the Rays brand. Clearly, something needs to be done.”
The Rays have made it clear they want the region to come together to think of something, but they haven't been overly eager to suggest solutions (of course, St. Pete's pesky threat of lawsuit may have something to do that).

Last year, when Stu Sternberg held his landmark stadium press conference, I wrote, "Sternberg didn't offer any suggestions of how a stadium would get built in this economy, he merely said the region needs to come together to get it done. I imagine the team will eventually contribute to a new stadium, but for negotiating sake, that offer isn't on the table yet."

A year later, very little has changed. In fact, it may be a while before anything does.

Maddon: Mayor Foster Has "Head in Sand"

Just when we thought the Stadium Saga would stay quiet for a few months, we get a catwalk delay Sunday, a lightning delay Monday, and Joe Maddon sounding off Tuesday. It's similar to Maddon's stadium complaints from last August, but gotta strike while the iron is hot, right?

"You shouldn’t play with all these obstructions, and all these caveats. Of course not. It's runs it's course. It was here for a moment. It served it's purpose. And now it’s time to move on. Absolutely it is. And to deny that, everybody has just got their head in the sand, period.

"This is a great place to raise a family and for me it's a great place to have a major-league team - the Tampa Bay area. So looking down the road I would hope that people have enough foresight to construct the new ballpark in the right place that maintains us here for many years, and permits us to build this (organization) into what we can. It's already pretty darn good - we could make it even better with the right facilities.

"The new ballpark would have to be retractable. To do otherwise would be economic suicide – it’s uncomfortable, the rain, the disruptions with the game, the disruptions with your work. All that stuff would be counter-productive. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Do it right, man."
The Sporting News reports Maddon is already thinking about stadium designs. Maddon also took what Times writer Marc Topkin called "veiled shots" at St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, who responded:

"I agree it's a regional asset and it requires support from the entire region. As I said before, I am not the regional mayor. I am the mayor of the city of St. Petersburg and I will do whatever I can to protect the interests of the people who built the stadium.

"We absolutely need to work with the region...I’ve always been one to look at the regional approach when it comes to attract fans to Tropicana Field. But the region didn’t build Tropicana Field. It was the people of Pinellas County who built Tropicana Field. So right now I am only concerned with their interests and protecting their investments.

"They have 15 years left on their lease yeah, I’m holding on pretty tightly. If they want to look at sites within Pinellas County, I'm all for that."
Last month I wrote about what was going on inside Foster's head, and his comments today seem to confirm my assumptions.