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?