Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Banning Youth Contact Sports?

Last night, I reported on new research and suggestions from Boston University doctors that indicate no child under the age of 14 should be playing contact sports.  The research shows their brains simply aren't developed enough to sustain multiple head hits, and even without evidence of concussions, dead cells and an "old man's" disease called CTE was found in former athletes as young as 18.

Watch the powerful video and controversial suggestions here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Where Pinellas Commission Candidates Stand on the Rays Stadium Saga

As the Stadium Saga draws multiple municipalities into a drawn-out "chess match," the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) expects to play an important role in discussions. And Election Day will decide who the county's decision-makers will be.

WTSP takes a look at where commission candidates stand when it comes to keeping the Rays in Pinellas County or working with Hillsborough toward a Tampa stadium.

Read the story here.

Where Hillsborough Commission Candidates Stand on the Rays Stadium Saga

With the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) ready to sit down with the Tampa Bay Rays to discuss their future in the Tampa Bay area, Nov. 6 could prove instrumental in which elected officials decide the team's fate.

WTSP takes a look at which commission candidates support chairman Ken Hagan's push for a new stadium, and which would like to see the county go in a different direction.

Read the story here.

Otto: "Lure of Taxpayer-Funded Palaces Continues"

At the bottom of his Monday morning column, Steve Otto from the Tampa Tribune joins his colleague Joe Henderson in sympathizing with St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster:
In the "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree" department, I can understand why St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster told the Tampa Bay Rays he didn't want them sneaking across the bay and taking a look at possible venue sites for a new baseball stadium.

The poor mayor knows he doesn't have money or geography in his favor.

The siren song of new money, new movers and shakers ready to buy a luxury box or two, and most of all a state-of-the-art baseball arena would be difficult to shake. Owners and fans alike have been tossed against the rocks by promises of success if only they are willing to cough up a half-billion dollars to make it happen.

The lure of taxpayer-funded palaces continues. And it will happen, just as surely as local merchants will continue to suffer around the empty hockey arena and the University of South Florida follows through on its plan to pull out of Raymond James Stadium when its deal is up and the Bulls get their own new stadium, possibly near or even on the USF golf course.

That so much can be spent on stadiums and arenas when so many of us only want less traffic and storm drains that work is also difficult to understand. But, hey, there is always room for one more stadium, one more arena, no matter what the cost.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rays Amendment Rejection Redux

Mayor Bill Foster's Friday rejection of the Rays' amendment proposal got a bit of play over the weekend, even though the editorial pages were surprisingly quiet (don't worry, there's always the upcoming week).

Sports talk hosts couldn't stop talking about the decision, which provided me a nice opportunity to chat about the topic with WDAE's J.P. Peterson during his Saturday show.  But in a point I've made before, I asked J.P. how many fans would make a $600 million stadium worth it?

Our conversation ultimately went in a different direction, but J.P. and I agreed the Rays' biggest problem was the lack of convenient transportation options for fans in Tampa Bay.  It doesn't have to do with driving across a bridge, but Downtown Tampa - even with a stadium - will never look like Denver's LoDo or Seattle's SoDo or Boston's Fenway neighborhoods because it doesn't have light rail. 

The Tampa Tribune alludes to the issue in comparing Baltimore's stadium district to Downtown Tampa.

Elsewhere in the papers this weekend, no news on the Bud Selig front; Marc Topkin reports the commissioner wasn't happy with Foster's stance on the Rays' contract but isn't doing anything about it right now.

But the most interesting thing to ponder from this weekend - was whether Foster's transparent case for public support accomplished anything.

He wrote to Stuart Sternberg, "when you became the principal owner of the Rays in 2005, you did so with your eyes wide open, fully aware of this history, and with full knowledge of the commitments made by your predecessors just ten years earlier."

"The potential for attendance challenges was foreseeable in 1995, and discussed at length during negotiations," Foster continued.  "And thus, the City bargained away some of its interests in exchange for a thirty year agreement that could not be terminated on the basis of attendance."

Those words weren't directed to the Rays' owner, but indirectly, all of Foster's critics who think he's going to chase the team out of town.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Foster Rejects Rays' Proposed Contract Amendment

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's response to the Rays' request for a contract amendment is a resounding and definitive "no."

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Foster sent a letter to Stuart Sternberg telling the Rays to back off their attempts to speak to Hillsborough about its future:

Foster said the only way to preserve the interests of the city is not to let the team look for stadiums outside St. Petersburg or the Pinellas Gateway area.

The Rays, Foster said, have a written obligation to play 1,215 more regular season games at Tropicana Field.

"Make no mistake," Foster wrote. "This is not about money, and the city has absolutely no interest in winding down our relationship prior to 2027."
It's no surprise the response reeks of legalese since Foster, a lawyer by trade, has been working in lock-step with St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe.  But Foster may be right in that the only way to preserve a city's legal leverage in a pro sports contract is to hold firm and avoid a public tug-of-war.

St. Pete's stance has always been that it's contract is ironclad.  They've also subtly indicated if the Rays want to change the agreement, they should bring ideas to the table.

Sternberg considered his latest proposal fair and, like Tampa baseball fans, won't get any warm & fuzzy feelings reading the letter.  Even Bud Selig is frustrated.  But at this point, nobody should be surprised that Foster is holding his ground.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When Does Ironclad Mean Ironclad?

The New York Islanders announced a move to Brooklyn yesterday, complete with 25-year "ironclad" lease.

The Rays supposedly have one of those too (a 30-year deal), but everyone insists they will get out of it.  Of course, few of those people are contract lawyers.

Since pro teams are better at these kind of negotiations than municipalities, there is reason to believe the two contracts are similar (I haven't read the Islanders' contract).

So if the Islanders' contract is "ironclad," so is the Rays', right?  Or is it that promises of an "ironclad" lease is simply a hollow one?

Stadium Financing Caucus Nears Report Release

The long-awaited "Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus" report on just how to pay for a new Rays stadium appears to finally be nearing completion.  Robert Trigaux with the Tampa Bay Times reports Chuck Sykes and members of the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce will publicize their findings soon:
An early executive summary emphasizes the importance of finding ways to pay for at least a portion of a new stadium — estimated to at $500 million to $600 million — with public funding. Mindful of today's antitax sentiment, the report looks at bond financing that could be used to raise money for a stadium. The bonds could be paid for by existing taxes used to cover debts that will soon be paid off. That would make tax money available for stadium funding — without the need for new taxes.
Even Trigaux acknowledges the preliminary findings are "rather basic," since there has only been one baseball stadium built in the last 50 years without public funding.

When the study was launched in June 2011, I wrote, "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."

So what new ground will the report break that the ABC Coalition didn't already identify?  In May 2010, Craig Sher, de-facto spokesman for the ABC coalition, said "it's just not going to happen," with regards to a new stadium without public financing.

"There's not that kind of revenue and profit-potential in Major League sports - particularly baseball - to privately-finance a whole stadium," Sher said.

So where will all the money come from?  Will the chambers of commerce address the elephant in the room and take the bold political step of suggesting a multi-county tax?

After several delays in releasing the report, anything from the caucus this fall that breaks the stadium stalemate would be a welcome sight for many Rays fans.  However, it wouldn't be a good idea to hold your breath.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Another Day, Another Times Editorial Whacking Bill Foster

Sure, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board recently complimented Bill Foster, but this week, it was right back to its favorite activity, criticizing the mayor.

Today's editorial indicated the mayor was stuck in 1986, and his approach toward the Stadium Saga "may get him to next year's election for mayor, but in the long run it is a losing one for the city":

Yet in St. Petersburg City Hall, it's still 1986. That is when the bitter fight between St. Petersburg and Tampa over baseball ended and the St. Petersburg City Council voted to build the domed stadium now called Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay has matured since then, cooperation has replaced old rivalries and the Rays have played at the Trop for 15 seasons. Only St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and City Attorney John Wolfe remain in denial, stuck in the past and fighting outdated parochial battles over another baseball stadium.

For those scoring at home, the Rays reasonably want to look in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a site for a new stadium to replace the outdated Trop. A regional franchise needs to look at its entire market, and the Rays have ranked at or near the bottom in attendance despite fielding a competitive, entertaining team. Foster refuses to let the Rays look outside St. Petersburg or nearby Pinellas.

This is a fatally flawed strategy. Every year that ticks off the lease makes it easier for the Rays to leave Tampa Bay. Pinellas County commissioners understand the need for a regional discussion, and they plan to meet with the Rays. So do Hillsborough County commissioners, who should not back down. So does Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. So does the business community on both sides of the bay. So do pragmatic St. Petersburg City Council members such as Jeff Danner and Charles Gerdes. The number of public officials hiding with Foster behind pinched legal opinions shrinks by the month.
As I've written before, the "every year that ticks off the lease" argument doesn't hold water since every year that St. Pete keeps the Rays at the Trop, it's recovering part of the investment it made in the team.

And while the Times is quick to bash Foster for not giving in to the Rays' request, it hasn't held team owner Stuart Sternberg to the same standards.  The newspaper has repeatedly suggested Sternberg offer St. Pete financial compensation for the right to expand the stadium search, but there was zero suggestion of such a proposal in the Rays' recent reply to the city.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vinik Suspends Channelside Pursuit

Citing "a significant legal hurdle, beyond our control, (that) could not be overcome," Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik announced this morning he has withdrawn his bid for Tampa's struggling Channelside Bay Plaza.

The once-popular-but-now-foreclosed-on complex, adjacent to Vinik's holdings around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, is owned by the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation.  However, it is controlled by the Tampa Port Authority.  Which means, Vinik's bid - the only one deemed worthy by the Port earlier this year - must get approval from both parties.

The problem stems from the fact that the Port wants whichever owner is best for Downtown Tampa, while the bank simply wants whichever owner is best for its bottom line.  The Port Authority can reject any bank-approved buyer it doesn't think has a good vision for Downtown Tampa.  Likewise, the bank can reject any Port Authority-approved buyer it doesn't think is bringing enough cash to the table.

The bank and port have been negotiating for months, while Vinik has patiently awaited.....until now.

Compare this episode to a home-buyer waiting on a bank to approve a short sell; but after months and months of waiting, the prospective buyer decides to just buy somewhere else, with no inconveniences.

Vinik didn't close the door on his Channelside pursuit, merely "suspended" his efforts.

And for those wondering what it means for the Rays-to-Tampa means nothing.  Land, after all, has never been an obstacle in the stadium saga.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

St. Pete Weighing Legal Leverage

The Tampa Bay Times took a closer look this weekend at what the City of St. Petersburg stands to gain - and lose - by allowing the Rays to speak to Hillsborough County about its future (albiet in generic terms only):
The team's recent request to explore sites in Hillsborough County has a potential downside: It could weaken the city's legal position if the Rays try to leave town without permission, several lawyers said last week.
"The more aggressively defensive the city is, the more litigation oriented they are," (Stetson University professor James) Fox said, "they could weaken their negotiating position to get a more advantageous settlement."

Council member Charles Gerdes said that very juggling act is his main concern: How to balance contractual strength with negotiating possibilities.
I've covered the issue of leverage before, as well as what Mayor Bill Foster is thinking in standing behind St. Petersburg's contract.

Sure, every year that goes by diminishes the city's leverage in seeking compensation if the Rays leave, but every year that goes by also means another year of MLB in St. Petersburg, so it's basically a moot point.

The Times even pointed out Minnesota got a one-year injunction against the Twins when contraction was on the table and only one year remained on their contract.

Of course, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan says he's moving forward with his Tampa-based Rays stadium discussions anyway...he just won't mention specific sites:
When Rays leaders travel to Tampa to speak with the County Commission, Hagan said, he’ll ask if they want to move to Hillsborough County, assuming the county attorney doesn’t stop him from asking the question. Hillsborough County should be fine as long as it doesn’t talk about specific streets and sites for a new stadium, Hagan said.
WFTS-TV also quotes Hagan as saying the Rays "(a)re not going to remain at the Trop until 2027."  Of course, the station didn't ask the commissioner what he was basing that assumption on, but there's no evidence there are any viable markets right now for the Rays to move to, nor the legal grounds for them to break their contract.

Still, Hagan said, "I don't want to see them be the Charlotte Rays, or the Las Vegas Rays, or the San Antonio Rays."

In Hagan's defense, he has always said he supports a Pinellas stadium if it means keeping the team in Florida.  But asking the team if they'd like to play in Hillsborough does neither Pinellas County, nor the taxpayers who could one day pay for a new Rays stadium, any favors.

Meanwhile, the Rays lay low in the discussion, awaiting their day in front of Hillsborough Commission.  Because saying anything more right now could disrupt the cycle of newspapers, television stations, and sports talk hosts negotiating down the region's leverage themselves.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

St. Pete Threatens to Sue Hillsborough over Rays

Let the tug-of-war begin!

The Tampa Bay Times is reporting the City of St. Pete has told Hillsborough commissioners to essentially cease and desist their conversations with the Rays:

The threat came in a letter from St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe to Hillsborough County attorneys. It marks an escalation of tension between the city and Hillsborough commissioners, who in August invited the Rays to appear before them to talk about baseball.

The Rays accepted the invitation, but a meeting date has not yet been set.

Hillsborough Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who once offered to "be the boyfriend that causes the divorce'' between St. Petersburg and the Rays, consulted his attorneys before inviting the Rays to meet. His attorneys concluded that any legal threat from St. Petersburg was minimal.

On Thursday, Hagan shrugged off St. Petersburg's threat and said he was "still excited about having the Rays speak to our board.

"I am confident in the legal opinion of the county attorney's office," Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times. "I am saddened by Mr. Wolfe's attempt to prevent the Rays from remaining in the Tampa Bay region."
But Mayor Bill Foster had this to say:

Hillsborough County can talk to the Rays about how to draw more fans from across the bay or marketing programs to increase attendance at Tropicana Field. But, he said, "it would be improper for them to have any discussions regarding the Rays playing anywhere outside Tropicana Field.

"We're still looking for a St. Petersburg solution."

Hagan extended the invitation to the Rays after county attorneys said commissioners, as third parties, were not bound by the Trop contract.

In a written analysis, Robert Brazel, a managing attorney in the county's litigation division, wrote that the county would open itself to lawsuit only if it damaged St. Petersburg and such damages would be difficult to prove "unless a new stadium is ultimately constructed in Hillsborough County" and St. Petersburg is not compensated for the team's loss.

But his memo also was cautionary. It suggested that the commission not delve into any discussion of stadium location and simply allow the Rays to talk about their intentions, long-term plans and goals.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Yes, We Get it, There is Land for a Stadium in Downtown Tampa

It's now two straight days the Tampa Bay Times has suggested land is available for a Downtown Tampa stadium despite any real indication the people in control of the land are interested in building a stadium.

Today, the Times reported "ConAgra's flour mill is key to unlocking downtown Tampa development — and maybe baseball." 

And also, maybe not.

Maybe the land could be used for a basketball arena, or a new theme park, or "3001: Space Odyssy," the world's largest strip club.  The point is, there's been no indication anyone with any land or money downtown has taken the first step toward planning a ballpark.  And it's not like land is in high demand in Tampa (money for a stadium, however, is!)

Meanwhile, Vinik appears to be closing in on Channelside Bay Plaza, the mall-like venue due east of the Forum.  He's one of Tampa's most popular businessmen and would be praised by the city for bringing the Rays across the bay, but Vinik knows better than to wade into the Stadium Stalemate anytime soon.

How Many Fans Do the Rays Need?

It's been a busy three weeks in the Stadium Saga, especially for columnists and editorial boards. Sunday, Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano wrote that the Rays are as good as gone from St. Pete and Mayor Bill Foster should use his leverage now to negotiate financial compensation....before it's too late. 
That column drew the ire of Rays blogger "Schmitty," who wrote "An Open Letter to John Romano and the Tampa Bay Times About the Rays Stadium Situation."

(For what it's worth, Romano wrote in April about how the Rays' contract with St. Pete is "very close" to ironclad)
And today, the Tampa Tribune editorial board authored a blunt recommendation to move the Rays to somewhere more centralized in Tampa Bay.  Where, you ask?  They did not specify.
But the editorial brought up several good points:
  • "The region must get it right because it's highly unlikely we'll get a third chance."
  • "Wherever the Rays play, some fans are going to have to drive across the bay bridges," implying fans should get over it.
  • "Cut 15 minutes off the time it takes most fans to get to the stadium and the Rays still will have empty seats."
The Trib contends the goal is getting out of the league's attendance cellar, but that strikes me as setting their sights extremely low.  A $500-600 million stadium to lift the Rays from 30th place to 26th place doesn't seem to me like a good investment.

So how many more fans are needed to warrant the investment? 

Thirty-thousand?  That would bump the Rays up to 15th out of 30 teams and would mean an extra 870,000 fans a year.  But 30,000/game seems unsustainable given the fact that the Marlins only drew 27,400 in their first season and playoff teams like Cincinnati and Baltimore only drew 28,978 and 26,610, respectively, this year despite their modern stadiums.

Twenty-five thousand?  That would bump the Rays up to 24th in the league in attendance and mean 465,000 more fans a year.  But there's a big question if the Marlins could draw that many next year or if the Rays - by moving from a county with 900,000 residents to a county with 1.1 million residents could either.

Twenty-three thousand?  Is it worth $500-600 million for 303,000 fans a year?  If the ticket average is $25, that's $7.5 million a year for the Rays.  Add parking and concessions and maybe it's $15 million a year for the Rays.  Might just be cheaper for Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties to hand the team an annual tax credit.

Back to the Trib, the editorial board implies a Rays departure from St. Pete is imminent: "Because its attendance is the poorest in Major League Baseball, the Rays will not remain in Tropicana Field much longer, regardless of the lease with St. Petersburg."

That's a bold assumption given no track record of MLB teams breaking seemingly ironclad contracts.  But the Trib probably was right when it conceded, "Whatever compensation (St. Petersburg) negotiates, or is awarded, it likely will be much less than the value of keeping the Rays as a regional asset."

Which begs the question, "Do the City of St. Pete and Pinellas County owe it to Tampa Bay to give up the equity they've built in the Rays?"  And should the rest of Tampa Bay (i.e. Hillsborough Co.) pay them for it if they hop across the bay?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Does Vinik Want a Channelside Stadium? Or Just the Newspapers?

A day after the Tampa Tribune suggested a real estate deal in Downtown Tampa could mean the owner of the Lightning, Jeff Vinik, wanted to build a baseball stadium, the Tampa Bay Times followed suit.

"There would be enough land to build all sorts of things," the Times wrote of the real estate purchase by a group tied to Vinik.  "High-rise towers, apartments and hotel rooms, places to eat and shop and, theoretically, a baseball stadium."

Even Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the biggest Rays-to-Tampa cheerleader around, appeared hesitant to tie the deal to baseball.
"I think irrespective of whether baseball comes or not, it's a smart acquisition on his part," Buckhorn said. "If I were in his shoes I would want to do the same thing. Not only do you protect the front door to your major investments but, if you're as successful as I think they will be, it opens up opportunities to completely refashion the area."
We don't have to believe the Lightning are simply interested in the land for parking, but why not write an article about what the land could mean to Vinik's plan to buy the Channelside Bay Plaza?

Why not write a speculative article about what Vinik, a hedge fund manager by trade, could profit with the suddenly-valuable Downtown Tampa land by building condos or flipping it in a few years?

Any property owner could conceivably donate land for a new baseball stadium, but the Times - despite mentioning several recently-suggested plans - neglects the biggest question:
"But while LeClair has the drawings and Cantor has the dream, Vinik has the land."
How the heck will anyone pay for it???

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Henderson Challenges Stadium Rhetoric

Since his move from the Sports page to the Metro page, Joe Henderson from the Tampa Tribune has written increasingly poignant columns on the stadium saga.  And this morning, he admits he may have been wrong assuming St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster was "a parochial lightweight who would get rolled if it looked like the Rays might actually try to leave the area."

Henderson, who was critical of Foster's leadership in June 2010 and said the "stadium (issue) was a legitimate concern" earlier in 2010, writes now that it's time for the Rays and Stuart Sternberg to bring something to the table for St. Pete.  He indicates Foster is probably right for putting the interests of St. Pete above the interests of the region:
So the next time Sternberg and Foster meet, the first item shouldn't be the lease amendment the Rays asked for Thursday so they could explore sites in Hillsborough County. Sternberg, a very persuasive fellow, should look across the table at the mayor and ask, "What will it take?"

I would start negotiations by asking Sternberg to use his considerable business acumen to create a vision for the site of the Trop, like he tried to do five years ago. Maybe you make it a true partnership by demanding he invest in the new project.

In return, the Rays get to look anywhere around here they wish.

This isn't just about getting a grand new ballpark, even as badly as the Rays need one. Everyone has to win for this to work, and right now St. Petersburg is first in line.

Henderson now gets what many local media types don't: that the stadium saga is a long and painful one.  He's written that finding land for a new stadium is easy, but the financial and political issues are much harder to negotiate.  He's written that contraction of the Rays is "never going to happen."  And he's written that nice never works in teams' campaigns for new stadiums.

Henderson has even argued "taxpayers have paid for enough stadiums," but my money is still on taxpayers in Hillsborough or Pinellas Counties (or both) footing a good chunk of the bill for a new Rays stadium.  We just don't know where, when, or how.

Friday, October 12, 2012

More Fallout from Rays' Hillsborough Push

Yesterday's news in the Stadium Saga - a proposed amendment by the Rays to only consider St. Pete stadium sites if they can consider Tampa stadium sites too - wasn't exactly new news.  But it certainly excited a lot of Rays fans in Hillsborough County.

Especially the Tampa Tribune!

Not only did the paper cover the developments, but it also published a seperate article about Jeff Vinik possibly assembling stadium land in Downtown Tampa.  Of course, there was no real suggestion that's what a group connected to Vinik was trying to do when it bought land across the street from the arena it already owns...but it makes for a good headline.

As for the proposed amendment to the Rays' stadium contract, St. Petersburg council members - and the city attorney - were leery of its intentions.

"Most of my colleagues' concern is protecting that investment first," Jeff Danner told the Trib, adding the amendment could considerably weaken St. Pete's contract with the team.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Danner suggested financial compensation for breaking the contract, as theorized yesterday on this blog.

Councilman Steve Kornell added his opposition to the amendment, saying, "If Tampa is a better solution...then why haven't I been able to watch a Bucs home game on TV for a couple of years?''

The most thought-provoking reasons for possibly rejecting the Rays' offer came from St. Pete City Attorney Mark Wolfe and Mayor Bill Foster.

Wolfe said that while St. Pete would retain "veto power" over a new stadium deal, they could be pressured politically to give in to "tough buyout terms" if the Rays cut a deal in Hillsborough County. 

"The newspapers are going to be all over us for being unresponsive,'' Wolfe was quoted in the Times. "You will have pressure on you from all sides.''

Foster said that he was determined not to play the saga out in the media (where the leagues have big advantages over municipalities), even if it means taking talks behind closed doors and away from the public eye.

Meanwhile, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan is "delighted" to speak to the Rays and entertain talks, regardless of what St. Petersburg decides.

A Tampa vs. St. Pete tug-of-war: exactly what the blueprint for a new stadium calls for.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rays Respond to St. Pete; Ask for Permission to Amend Contract

The Tampa Bay Rays have responded to St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster's request to discuss a proposed Gateway/Carillon baseball stadium with a counteroffer to amend their (seemingly ironclad) contract.

In a letter, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg asks Foster for a number of concessions in the use agreement, including lifting the contract's prohibition on negotiations with other municipalities.  In return, Sternberg offers contract language that would prohibit a new agreement elsewhere "until the Rays and the City of St. Petersburg have reached a mutually-acceptable resolution regarding how best to wind down our lease of Tropicana Field."

"This amendment will allow for a throrough evaluation of sites, in only Pinellas County and Hillsborough County," Sternberg continued in his letter.  "It is a responsible process to undertake before any decisions about a new ballpark in the region can be made, collectively, by the Rays, the public, community leaders, and our elected representatives."

Simultaneously, the Rays sent a letter to Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan saying, "we stand ready to meet at your convenience."

Sternberg's letter to Hagan implores "joint, collaborative meetings between the Rays and all the Tampa Bay area local governments who wish to ensure the long-term success of Major League Baseball in the bay area."

Just when Foster started to crank up the pressure on the Rays, Sternberg returns volley with a simple, logical argument Foster will have trouble refusing.
While allowing the Rays to open up conversations with Hillsborough County could diminish St. Pete's leverage down the road (studies will inevitably conclude Tampa is a better market for a team than St. Pete), Sternberg's promise to "preserve the City of St. Petersburg's rights" is a convincing one.

The next move is Foster's, and Jason Collette with already speculates the mayor will insist upon financial considerations to amend the deal

A payout was actually suggested by the Tampa Bay Times editorial board too, but not offered by Sternberg.  So even if Foster is open to the amendment, it could require lengthy negotiations for the two sides to see eye-to-eye.

Foster told WTSP-TV on Thursday afternoon that he'll have to discuss the amendment with his staff and had no immediate answer.

(H/T to SaintPetersblog for breaking the news) 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Foster, TB Times Defer to Rays for Next Move

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is getting a bit more shrewd with how he plays the Stadium Saga.

Following last week’s proposal for a new Rays stadium in St. Pete’s Carillon/Gateway area, Foster sent a letter to Rays owner Stu Sternberg asking to discuss the idea.

"Perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions following the CityScape presentation is 'where do we go from here,' " Foster wrote in his letter, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The move drew praise from Field of Schemes author Neil deMause:
If he accepts the offer he gives up on his position that any stadium talks need to include Tampa as an option, but if he turns it down he looks like a jerk for not being willing to discuss the one proposal on the table that has, well, really crappy renderings anyway.
Foster then took to sports talk radio in Tampa Bay Friday.

"No excuses, (Sternberg & I) need to sit down and talk," Foster told Whitney Johnson on 1040 AM. 

Foster said the two men had a "cordial" relationship, but couldn't remember the last time he heard from Sternberg (he guessed it was mid-season).  Nevertheless, the mayor praised the owner - as well as his organization - as "class acts."

Prior to the radio appearance, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, which will traditionally slap Foster anytime it can, was surprisingly complimentary in this morning's paper, calling his invite to Sternberg the "logical next step."

The editorial board also called on the Rays to open up their books to prove a financial need and then offer a financial incentive to St. Petersburg to look at new stadium options.
However, several times previously, the editorial board has made the same suggestions.  And while the Rays have never hinted they'd open their books or pay St. Pete to look elsewhere, they continue to get a free pass from the Times, which has a reputation for holding the powerful accountable.

Finally, it's interested to look back to Bill Foster the mayoral candidate, where in 2009, he said a new stadium is a priority for the Rays or they'd leave for a more attractive deal sometime after 2016. Rebuilding on the current site was his preference, but if the team doesn't want to stay downtown, "he could live" with the Gateway site. Letting the Rays go to Tampa was "not an option."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sternberg's Rays Anniversary & Final Attendance Numbers

From our friends at RaysIndex:
Today marks the 7th anniversary of the day Stuart Sternberg took control of the Rays. And what an amazing seven years it has been, including three trips to the playoffs in the last five years and averaging 91 wins per season during that span.

And oh by the way, two AL East banners. That’s one more than the Red Sox have in the last 17 years.

*Raising a glass* To Mr. Sternberg and the rest of the Tampa Bay Rays…Cheers.
Also, with a crowd of 17,909 for last night's season finale at the Trop, the Rays finish the season last in MLB attendance, averaging 19,255 fans/game. 

On one hand, the Rays drew 2% more fans than last year, but it's not "the extra 2%" they're used to.

Also, while the Rays were right on the heels of the Cleveland Indians (19,797 avg. in a modern stadium) and Houston Astros (19,848 in a modern stadium), they'll likely be lumped into the new stadium conversations with the Oakland Athletics this offseason after the A's drew just 20,728 fans a game while winning their division.

We can also expect to hear more about the Marlins, who drew just 27,400 fans a game in their first season at Marlins Park.  That's a 44% boost from last year, but it's also the smallest average in decades for a ballpark's inagural season.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reactions Amusing to Channelside Stadium Talk

Interesting to see how yesterday's Tampa Bay Times story on a proposed new baseball stadium at Channelside changed as the day went on.

At midday, it read:
Joel Cantor, who built the Signature Plaza condominium tower in St. Petersburg, said Tuesday a 33,000-seat stadium could fit on the (Channelside) site, much like AT&T Park in San Francisco where the Giants play.
"Surprisingly, the dimensions fit on the water,'' he said. "It's obviously a big project, and it's a long shot. But we came to the conclusion that it would be the ideal site for a baseball stadium. It would a tremendous catalyst to rejuvenating downtown Tampa."
I immediately pointed out Cantor had no idea how to pay for a stadium in Downtown Tampa. And by evening, the same article was re-written to include the headline, "Developer's plans to build Rays stadium over Channelside faces skepticism," and these gems:
Port commissioner Lawrence Shipp laughed for a full minute after a Times reporter told him about it. He said a stadium can't fit on Channelside's footprint.
Then there was this reaction: "They're smoking some pretty good stuff," said Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, who added that the city has no business talking stadiums while St. Petersburg has a contract with the Rays. "What's the outfield going to be? A cruise ship?"
Unfortunately - in full transparency - the reactions weren't added before one of my counterparts aired his 11pm story lending a bit of credibility to the rumors.  But the sports talk stations in town sure are thankful!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Another Week, Another Developer Wants to Build a Stadium

A new Tampa stadium proposal to compete with last week's proposal in St. Pete? Don't mind if we do! (via the Tampa Bay Times)
A St. Petersburg developer wants to buy the struggling Channelside Bay Plaza and build a baseball stadium on the site for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Joel Cantor, who built the Signature Plaza condominium tower in St. Petersburg, said Tuesday a 33,000-seat stadium could fit on the waterfront site, much like AT&T Park in San Francisco where the Giants play.

"Surprisingly, the dimensions fit on the water,'' he said. "It's obviously a big project, and it's a long shot. But we came to the conclusion that it would be the ideal site for a baseball stadium. It would a tremendous catalyst to rejuvenating downtown Tampa.''

Cantor said he did not know how the stadium would be financed but said he would contribute $50 million toward the project. Money from the Rays, public/private partnerships, bed taxes and possibly bonds would also be needed.

Cantor said he discussed the stadium idea with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik several months ago, but Vinik was already teamed up with other partners to buy the Channelside property. Cantor said Vinik's proposal, which is close to completion, also calls for a baseball stadium.

You should have heard that figurative record scratch in your head with the line, "he did not know how the stadium would be financed."

I don't know how many other ways to say it, but land is cheap in the stadium saga, but no developer in his right mind would build a stadium with his own cash.  Until someone or some group addresses how to finance a new park, it's all wasted words.

Here's to hoping the groups studying stadium financing come up with some revolutionary new ideas.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rays Carillon Stadium Proposal: Top Opinions

Coverage of the “Rays Park at Carillon” unveiling Friday was plentiful; there were the predictable “oohs” and “ahhs” from the local broadcast outlets over things like a transparent roof, a “Disney-like tram,” and 35,000 state-of-the-art seats.

But what was also nice to see was the increased focus on how the heck Tampa Bay might pay for the awesomneness.  I've been saying for years that the discussions about where a stadium should go are almost pointless until progress is made on how to pay for it.

The Tampa Bay Times sizes up a $250 million shortfall:
Money from selling the Trop land might also be available because that cash flow wouldn't exist without a new stadium. Those two sources might reasonably generate roughly $150 million toward new construction. And the Rays have indicated they might contribute $150 million toward the right project. Even then, a $250 million gap would remain. "That's where the dialogue comes in," said council member Wengay Newton. "That's the line in the sand."

My WTSP co-worker Preston Rudie adds that state dollars could come into play as they did for the Marlins, and Michael Sasso from the Tampa Tribune writes that everyone seems to be pinning their hopes on the Tampa & St. Pete Chambers of Commerce, which are conducting a joint financial study.  The only problem is, that report is already more than six months overdue.

There were lots of other opinions about the Carillon proposal, including Steve Otto nicknaming it "El Tacoarena."   The Times editorial board made a poignant, albeit sarcastic, point about the plan suffering from a lack of transit options.

And John Romano's Saturday column was titled "an intriguing idea in the wrong spot," criticizing any efforts to build a stadium in Pinellas County.  He wrote Stu Sternberg "is going to hold out for the perfect stadium. Anything else does not make sense. Anything else is a $600 million mistake."

That's making a very large assumption that Sternberg plans on owning the Rays for decades to come and wouldn't be happy with a glitzy new, short-term attendance fix.  It may be true.  But a new stadium at Carillon would certainly convince more Hillsborough County residents to cross the bridge.

However, Romano reiterates an important point: "This has to be a partnership."  I've agreed.

Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties are going to have to work together if the region wants a new stadium, but for one constituency, it will likely mean paying for a stadium on the other end of the Howard Frankland Bridge.