Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Stu Sternberg is Thinking

With the Rays and St. Pete entering year No. 4 of the Stadium Saga, the most pivotal player in the game is also the hardest to get on-the-record.

Rays’ Principal Owner Stu Sternberg has been more calculated than candid with his public comments, but it’s because he’s trying to execute a blueprint dozens of professional teams have used to get new stadiums.

Sternberg truly cares about putting a winning club on the field. And despite a bitter taste in his mouth from how the 2008 waterfront stadium idea was quashed, he still wants that club to play in Tampa Bay. But he – and his investors - also care about turning bigger profits and that will ultimately determine the future of the Rays franchise.

Related: Is a New Rays Stadium a Need or "Want?"

A new stadium could represent $200 million in value to the Rays, including tens of millions in revenue in each of the first few years. And while Sternberg would put a portion of that money into his own pocket, the rest would undoubtedly go back into the team, creating a better product for fans. He sees it as a win-win.

But the problem is that a new stadium would cost substantially more than $200 million. So Sternberg needs help.

While private developers may be eager to donate land for a new park, there’s no financial gain to be had from building the actual stadium for a team. That leaves a funding gap for a retractable-roof stadium of approximately $300 million.

So public financing will have to close that gap. And every penny generated by a tourist tax, a tax-increment financing (TIF) district, or payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, means a penny saved by Sternberg.

With a lucrative television opportunity lurking in 2016, the franchise may be anxious to capitalize on the stadium momentum now. Attendance is ugly, payroll has been slashed, and the team has been winning. To many in the Rays’ organization, there’s no reason the region shouldn’t be supportive of these efforts. But like the private sector, there’s no appetite in the public sector right now for stadium financing, either.

Sternberg’s frustrations stem from the fact that the Tampa Bay region can’t get together for a seemingly-simple multi-county tax like the efforts that got stadiums built in Denver and Milwaukee.

But even in bad economies, appetites can change. And the process can be sped up by finding a second municipality hell-bent on landing Major League Baseball.

Until that day, the Rays have to wait out the economy, let Tampa Bay fans grow uncomfortable with the silence, and let columnists and editorial boards do the dirty work of leveraging politicians. The uglier it gets, the more leverage created for the long-term goal.

It’s not that Sternberg and the Rays have bad intentions; it’s actually the opposite: they really want baseball to survive in Tampa Bay. But business is business and profits must come first.

Tomorrow, a look inside the brain of Sternberg's nemesis in “What Mayor Bill Foster is Thinking.”

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