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 WTSP.com 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.