Monday, June 20, 2011

Is a New Stadium a Rays' Need? Or "Want?"

With their much-anticipated Red Sox/Marlins/Father’s Day homestand in the books, the Rays’ average attendance creeped up to 18,484 on the year. Sadly, still 29th-best mark in the league.

The sagging 2011 numbers, combined with the mere mention of the word “stadium” at a Hillsborough Commission meeting, provided another week’s worth of fodder for talk radio, sports columnists, and newspaper editorial boards.

Times Story: Hillsborough Officials ponder Rays' future
Times Column:
Playing hardball will only hasten Rays' departure
Times Column:
Hey, St. Petersburg, Tampa here: Can we talk Rays?
Trib Editorial:
Being ready for the Rays

But for the Tampa Bay region to bear the burden of poor attendance numbers is wrong. Is it Tampa Bay's fault Busch Gardens' numbers dropped last year? Is it the region's fault more people aren't buying the Tampa Tribune???

First and foremost, the profitability of the Rays in Tampa Bay is the responsibility of Stu Sternberg and the owners that bought the team five years ago. A recent article even provided evidence the team should be able to turn profits here.

But that said, the region still bears a bit of responsibility in making sure any business that calls Tampa Bay home survives. However, so far, the Rays haven’t shown any evidence they can’t.

We’re simply expected to take their word for it.

What the Rays have provided is below-average attendance numbers. But MLB reported $7 billion in revenue last year and the Rays post better-than-average televison ratings. So who knows what the team’s bottom line looks like other than the folks in the front office?

All we know so far is that the team HAS been sustainable in Tampa Bay - even profitable. So what evidence do we have that the team won’t be in the future? Are revenues expected to drop? It’s not like the team has major debt problems like a handful of others in the league.

Actually, revenues should climb in future years as the team stands to negotiate a new, lucrative television contract based on it’s growing audience.

So, while fans are expected to believe the current situation is not sustainable; while local municipalities are expected to help subsidize a new stadium; and while St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster is expected to give the team permission to break it’s use agreement; the Rays should provide actual evidence of their needs, not their “wants.”

Stu Sternberg owes it to the region to open up his books.


  1. What a good website for this issue! Thank you!

    While I would agree the Rays need to show their books, the problem with "Are the Rays making a profit?" or "Can the Rays survive in the Trop?" is the existence of revenue-sharing. Assuming the Deadspin documents are correct, the Rays can make money with low attendance simply by keeping the budget low and getting a $35 million net payment from MLB every year. The Deadspin documents show that the Rays tried to break out of that mode, but revenues didn't keep up with increased payroll. Those documents cover 2007 and 2008, but if you extrapolate based on other known facts (essentially static attendance and ticket revenues, rather larger budgets), the Rays probably lost considerable money in 2009 and 2010. Not being able to sustain a $70 million payroll (still below the MLB average), the team was forced to cut payroll and going back to the low cost mode.

    So asking "Can the Rays survive?" is like asking "Can a welfare recipient survive?" The answer is "Yes," but it's not much of a life or a team. A team restricted to a budget of less than $50 million is simply not going to be able to hang on to good players when they hit free agency, or if they're really good, even arbitration, like David Price. What happens when the handful of players with long-term contracts like Longoria, Shields and Davis start getting paid much more than they are getting paid now?

    This is not to say that a new stadium is a panacea. It's likely more bodies will be present after spending a half-billion for a new stadium, but how many more bodies and more importantly, how much more money will they bring with them? I think many Tampa Bayers fear that the Rays will end up keeping all the extra revenues while they just get the extra expense, and I suspect they're right. However, even assuming the Rays cover all the extra cost, if it costs you an extra $25 million to get an extra $25 million, that really doesn't solve your revenue problem, does it?

    The true bottom line is that Tampa Bay, one way or the other, is going to have to pay the Rays a lot more money, probably more than double or somewhat more what they are now to support a decent team that can sustain a payroll around the MLB average. I think that's essential for the Rays to remain in Tampa Bay long-term, but it's very difficult to see that happening no matter what happens. But if that doesn't happen, the Rays will be a perennial bargain-basement team unable to retain good players while being dependent on big MLB subsidies to make ends meet. If that's the case, I think they'll eventually and inevitably leave.

  2. But the Rays aren't in "Tampa Bay," they're in St. Petersburg, and that seems to be where the tug-of-war begins. Just a question: _is_ all of Tampa Bay supporting the team? Or is St Pete going it alone?