Thursday, June 30, 2011

Buckhorn Echoes What Foster Said Two Years Ago

Times writer Richard Danielson details another episode of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn talking stadium:
Seems like every week Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is thinking out loud about the future of the Tampa Bay Rays in ways that raise people's eyebrows.

Buckhorn said in a radio interview Tuesday that he believes the team will leave St. Petersburg.
...
If the Rays do leave St. Petersburg, Buckhorn said, and not for the first time, he thinks the best place for them to land would be downtown Tampa.

But asked whether he thinks the Rays will move to Tampa, Buckhorn said, "No. It's my belief that at some point the Rays will leave St. Petersburg … and I absolutely want to be ready when that happens."

On Wednesday, Buckhorn said it's clear that playing at Tropicana Field doesn't work for the team.
Ironically, it's similar to what St. Pete's not-yet-elected mayor, Bill Foster, said two years ago.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Trib Column on Buckhorn Pitch Misses the Mark

Tribune columnist Joe O'Neill writes that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's ceremonial first pitch the other night was much more than a pitch. And he may be right...but he's also very wrong.

O'Neill says, "sooner than later, the Rays will unilaterally opt out of that (2027) Trop lease. It won't come cheap, but it's the cost of (un)doing business in the sports-franchise universe...the Rays will relocate to Tampa or they will move far away."

First of all, the Rays have a use agreement, not a lease. And they can't "opt out," only buy out.

But more importantly, it's wrong to assume all Pinellas locations are off the table.

Pinellas Co. still has the most available money and a Gateway/Toytown venue would still put the team more within reach of more fans.

O'Neill also asserts, "The water may be a 'big divide' when it comes to Trop attendees, but Tampa's mayor and key business interests have no problem bridging the bay."

I get his point, but if the businesses in Tampa supported the Rays in St. Pete, we wouldn't be having this discussion about the Rays moving.

Sternberg Reminds Fans of Repurcussions of Low Attendance

Stu Sternberg held an impromptu press conference before Tuesday night's Rays/Reds game...although the comments weren't exactly improvised.

The St. Petersburg Times quotes him as saying, "Adding payroll is more difficult this year given the reality of our attendance."

To be more accurate, adding payroll is easy; maintaining profits are not.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Chambers aren't Only Groups Studying Stadium Funding

As the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce teams up with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce to study ways to finance a new Rays stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay, a separate effort to research private financing is already underway. The big difference: the second effort is focused on Downtown Tampa.

Ryan Neubauer, who two years ago launched, “Build it Downtown Tampa,” has been quietly working behind-the-scenes with area business leaders on a way to get the Rays across the bay. Careful not to interfere with St. Pete’s use agreement with the team, Neubauer holds several specifics close to the vest.

But by September, Neubauer – and his partners in the grass-roots effort – expect to release a specific report on a Downtown location and financing package they think could be the solution to the Stadium Saga.

"This recommendation can't rely on any significant public funds,” Neubauer said, adding that business leaders will need to step up like never before to close a monstrous gap in funding a half-billion dollar stadium.

Meanwhile, the two chambers have been meeting to study how stadiums have been built not just in the U.S., but internationally. They want to further the work the ABC Coalition did from 2008 to 2010.

"The ABC Coalition looked primarily at potential locations,” said Bob Rohrlack, President of the Greater Tampa Chamber. “That's the one thing we are not discussing. What we're discussing is how to fund the facility."

What Mayor Bill Foster is Thinking

After a look inside the brain of Rays Principal Owner Stu Sternberg, it’s time to analyze what St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster is thinking as the Stadium Saga enters another stalemate summer.

With attendance at The Trop barely registering in the MLB rankings and the city threatening lawsuit over anyone or anything that threatens to interfere with their use agreement, Foster has taken it on the chin from the local papers:
- Times columnist John Romano implied a good leader would be open to the Rays’ demands.
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Tribune columnist Martin Fennelly said Foster had his head in the sand and deserves boos.
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Times columnist Sue Carlton said she hopes St. Pete and the Rays can just work it out.
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The Tribune editorial board called Foster “stubborn” and said he’s risking losing the Rays.
We’ve heard Foster say The Trop is a great facility. But that’s Foster the St. Pete Promoter talking. He doesn’t really think the Rays’ have a park that compares to Target Field, PNC Park, or Wrigley Field. But he will get offended if you suggest the park and the city are the reason you don’t go to games.

And even though Foster said on the campaign trail the Rays could leave St. Pete after 2016, he now says he’ll go to court to make sure they don’t break the contract. That’s Foster the Lawyer talking.

To Foster the Lawyer, the stadium situation is only a problem because the Rays said so. With no actual proof of financial struggles, nor proof of another city looking for a team, Foster remains content to hold his ground. All Sternberg has done so far is ask not-so-nicely for permission to explore breaking their contract.

It comes to down to preserving St. Pete’s equity in Major League Baseball. The city agreed to build a stadium in exchange for 30 years of baseball. Foster sees anything short of that benchmark unacceptable.

Is he willing to negotiate? Sure. Is he willing to accept financial restitution in exchange for early termination of the contract? Probably. But that hasn't been offered by the Rays.

What has been offered is a region-wide search for a better location and Foster already knows what that would yeild: a Tampa vs. St. Pete tug-of-war. When the Tribune suggests a Tampa stadium plan would do nothing to interfere with St. Pete's relationship, they're wrong. It takes away St. Pete's leverage.

And in a stalemate that will ultimately come down to a negotiation over hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies, Foster the Lawyer can't afford to lose any leverage.

While he would love to help the Rays build a new state-of-the-art park in Pinellas County, Foster sees many of the recent ballparks as public bailouts of private businesses that may not have even needed them.

And as much as he would prefer to negotiate in the mayor’s office rather than the court of public opinion, Foster has no problem playing the bad guy to the region to preserve the interests of his city. He's the mayor of St. Pete, not greater Tampa Bay.

When Foster says he's prepared for all of MLB's "tricks," he means he isn't going to buy the argument that a new stadium is a "need," rather than a "want."

Foster the St. Pete Promoter thinks if the Rays wanted to succeed in St. Pete in the first place, they'd promote their home instead of bash it. Foster the Lawyer thinks if the team wants a new stadium, it should come to the negotiating table to discuss compensation for terminating its contract early.

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Tampa/St. Pete Chambers' Coalition: What Does it Mean?

Thursday's announcement that business leaders on both sides of the Bay will discuss ideas on how to fund a stadium is a welcome chapter in the Stadium Saga; but it's not a surprising one. After all, the ABC Coalition - not coincidentally, a group of business leaders from both sides of the Bay - concluded a new coalition would be necessary in its final report from January 2010:
The coalition found the Rays are right to assert the current stadium near Downtown St. Pete is too remote for most fans to frequently visit, and that Tampa Bay will need to band together to get a new stadium deal done.

"This is all one region," said Rays' Senior Vice President Michael Kalt. "We're committed to this process and this region, so I don't think anyone has any reason to worry, no matter if they're in St. Pete or Tampa or Pasco County."
...
Kalt did, however, repeat that he hoped leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay would put aside their differences and work together to keep the Rays in the area. It's an assertion echoed several times by members of the coalition.

"Baseball is regional, just like transit or education," said ABC Coalition member Craig Sher. "We need to take a regional approach...not just one city."
The news should also ease Stu Sternberg's frustrations at the region's uncooperative attitude, but it may not get him much closer to a stadium. With no taxing authority, the group of businessmen may be hard-pressed to do anything more than lobby for a multi-county tax and tax breaks for the project.

These are some very powerful business leaders determined to make things happen, but if funding a stadium was as simple as pooling their private dollars, we wouldn't be in the current stalemate.

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.”

Rob Neyer Nails Stadium Saga Synopsis

ESPN's Rob Neyer hits the nail on the head in the last paragraph of (yet another) Rays stadium story:
How does all this end? I think it's impossible to say. Except we can be fairly certain that nothing's going to change in the next year or three. Which means more pieces exactly like this one. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

ESPN's Howard Bryant on Rays/A's

ESPN's Howard Bryant takes a long look at the plight of the Rays and A's. His most interesting paragraph comes toward the end:
"Wheels exist within wheels, and quite possibly the Giants and Rays continue to be linked. When the Giants foundered in Candlestick Park, executives pointed to weak attendance but strong television ratings as proof that the problem was not the market but the ballpark. The Rays' television data suggests, too, that the problem might not be the market, after all, but the lack of a nice place to watch a game. The Giants took a risk and built their own ballpark. If the Rays are to be taken seriously, they might need to do the same."
Good read.

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.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

ESPN Ranks Lightning No. 2 Franchise in Sports

ESPN's annual Franchise Rankings pay big props to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the second-best franchise in all the major sports. The Green Bay Packers were No. 1.

The rankings take into account a number of factors, including front-office success, fan relations, and ownership's honesty/loyalty to players and fans. The Lighning notched outstanding ratings in those three categories. Even the team's worst rating, "Stadium Experience," was in the top 25 percent of franchises.

The Tampa Bay Rays were the 25th-ranked franchise of 122, thanks to excellent performance on-the-field and excellent affordability for fans. However, the Tropicana Field experience (111th) and ownership loyalty to player/community (86th) dragged it down.

The Tampa Bay Bucs, 59th of 122 teams, were middle-of-the-pack in most categories. They scored positive points for their recent championship, but were penalized for poor fan relations (104th).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Column Says Rays Right Not to Price Tickets Dynamicly

David Simmons from The Biz of Baseball writes that dynamic ticket prices, one of my big stories to watch in 2011, is a great idea for most teams...just not the Rays:
"The loss of season-ticket holders has forced teams to begin the use of dynamic pricing. Teams, like the concert industry, are challenged to make the same amount of revenue of their ticketing inventory by selling fewer tickets."
Read more here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Glazers May Go Public with Man. U

According to The Times in London, The Glazer family, owners of Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, may go public with Man U. on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Marketwatch reports:
English football club Manchester United could have a GBP1.7 billion flotation in Hong Kong as its American owners study the possibility of the club's return to the public markets, the Sunday Times reports.

The report said the Glazer family have held talks with several investment banks on a plan to list the Premier League club on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It said advisers believe the strength of the club's brand and its following in Asia could attract a higher price for its shares in Hong Kong than in London.

However, the report also cited sources close to the discussions as saying that plans are still at an early stage and may come to nothing.

It said bankers have told the Florida-based Glazer family that the listing could value the club at GBP1.7 billion, or more than double the GBP790 million they paid for it in 2005 when the club was taken private.

A spokesman for the club couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

More on Hillsborough Commissioners and Tampa Stadium Talk

It's a tricky position for Hillsborough Commissioners: how to support long-term efforts to keep the Rays without upsetting their "friends" in St. Petersburg or the vocal anti-tax voters around Tampa that put them into office.

With Commissioner Ken Hagan bringing up stadium funding at a budget workshop yesterday, it's a good time to take a look back at what commissioners said about a possible Tampa stadium on the campaign trail:
Commissioners Campaigning - 10/31/10

Also:
Timeline and coverage of Rays' Stadium Saga

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tampa's biggest stadium-financing advocate is a Republican

It seems counter-intuitive that one of Hillsborough County's biggest anti-tax advocates keeps bringing up public financing ideas for a possible Rays stadium, but Commissioner Ken Hagan brought it up again Wednesday.

The St. Petersburg Times reports,
Hagan said he knows of no specific, concrete plans moving forward to build a baseball stadium in Hillsborough County and is not trying to lay the groundwork.

He said he was simply putting on record the idea that tax districts are a way to use public money without asking residents generally for a tax increase.

Under the proposal, the fairgrounds and surrounding land would be designated as a "community redevelopment area." As the economy rebounds, and new construction takes place, increased property tax money resulting from rising values would go to pay for roads, sewer pipes and other infrastructure in the immediate area.

Hagan said that as he has talked to people around the country where other stadiums have been built, and the so-called tax-increment financing has been a strategy used to pay for the public infrastructure they require. The team or other private interests then pay much, or all, of the stadium costs.

"I just want to point that out," Hagan said. "It came up in the context of the fairgrounds, but my comment was not directed at the fairgrounds."
Hagan is right in that TIFs have been used to successfully finance roads and parking lots at countless stadiums now. But it's wrong to assume (not that Hagen did) TIFs could finance an entire stadium. There's no real way right now to finance a stadium right now with just Hillsborough County's assets.

And that, folks, is why we have the stadium saga.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sternberg Still Frustrated with Attendance

As I said last week, 99% of what Rays' principal owner Stu Sternberg says to local media is deliberate and calculated. While last week may have been his rare from-the-heart moment, he went back to the script this week in an interview with the Tampa Tribune:
"To run a payroll like we do now, basically the second-lowest in baseball, and barely keep our nose above water, we can't sustain that."
Not that Sternberg doesn't have a right to be upset with the 29th-best average home attendance of 17,954.
"It is what it is,'' Sternberg said of the disappointing turnouts at Tropicana Field. "It could be better and should be better. I know we can't sustain ourselves like this. It hasn't gotten better. If anything, it's worse. We had another successful year last season and the economy, while it's not good, has not gotten worse, but our numbers I think will be down, coming off a postseason appearance. It's unheard of."
...
"People are watching us on TV and listening on the radio. I walk around and I see all the hats. I want to have a team that's going to be able to compete, but we can't lose money year in and year out, hand over fist."
If the Stadium Saga were a 9-inning game, we'd still only be at about the bottom of the 3rd.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sternberg Owns Up to Mistake

Taking a break from his typical well-choreographed volleys in the Stadium Saga, Rays owner Stu Sternberg lobbed another controversial comment at Rays fans Thursday night - likely inadvertently.

Speaking at a roundtable of Tampa Bay's three major franchise owners, Sternberg said the one thing he learned about the area since buying the team five years ago was that "the water is a big divide."

The comment was a nod at the hesitance of Hillsborough County fans to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge for weekday games.

And while Sternberg went on to say, "we've learned about the driving habits of people, their willingness and ability to navigate bridges and so forth," the comments shouldn't be construed as a knock on Rays fans as much as it is an admission of a business mistake.

Sternberg and the majority of his front office come from the Northeast, where fans will routinely drive an hour or two to see the Yankees, Red Sox, or Phillies play. Growing up just eight miles from Fenway Park, I still had to spend 60+ minutes getting to the game. And we thought nothing of it.

So understand Sternberg's frustrations that many Floridians won't drive more than 30 minutes - or cross a bridge - to see good baseball.

Two years ago, Rays VP Michael Kalt admitted to me the team underestimated the psychological barrier of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

"I think we need to be honest about what people's tolerances are to travel to go to sporting events," Kalt said in July 2009.

It seems for all their dilligence in getting the extra edge in places like the draft, the gate, the concession stand, and even in sports psychology, the Rays' made one big mistake when it came to consumer psychology.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Breaking News: Fans Don't Like The Trop

I've seen bogus "studies" this week about cities most overdue for hurricanes (Tampa was #3) and the most dangerous zip codes in the country (Downtown St. Pete was #8). But the sports world had it's own - baseball's best ballparks, judged by fan ratings on review site Yelp.com.

As someone who has been to two-thirds of these parks, I can tell you there are plenty of slights (Wrigley Field 10th? Nationals Park 26th?). There are also head-scratchers, like how the White Sox' U.S. Cellular Field ranked higher than the Diamondbacks' Chase Field.

The Rays ranked 28th, by the way.

Article author Nate Silver, formerly of 538.com, concluded some of the surprises could be explained by fans' perceptions of their team's performance, rather than the stadium.

He also concluded that it's not worth building a retractable roof since the five stadiums with the expensive technology averaged a 3.86 rating, compared to 4.10 without them.

Silver didn't make any conclusions with regards to attendance, however. Maybe it was because the most-popular park belonged to the Pirates (26th in attendance) and other popular parks belonged to the Orioles (22nd), Royals (25th), and Indians (27th).