Friday, July 3, 2009

How the Rays Stadium Saga Will Go Down

A tug-of-war - first between two local communities, then two communities separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. Blogs, petitions, editorials, and maybe even a full-page ad or two. Anger. Heartbreak.

These are all the things we in the Tampa Bay area have to look forward to in the next couple of years as the Rays lobby for a new state-of-the-art baseball stadium.

Disclaimer: this is pure conjecture. By no means do I have a crystal ball that can predict the future. However, I've covered a number of professional sports teams' attempts to get new stadiums funded by the community (Red Sox' failed attempt for a new Fenway Park, Red Sox' successful attempt for a new spring training park in Ft. Myers, Reds' failed attempt for a new spring training park in Sarasota, Marlins' fleecing of Miami for a new park, etc.) and while the results differ, the steps teams take to get their way are almost identical. So, I'm pretty sure how this is going to go down.

Every time a team wants a new ballpark, it starts planting seeds that it cannot field a competitive team in its current digs (Rays got this out of the way in the 1990s).

When people start believing the team actually could be competitive at its current site - both on-the-field and at the box office - the team drops more hints that attendance could/should still be better (see Rays' 2008 campaign).

When people start believing that a new ballpark could make a difference in attendance, the team commissions a study to "analyze" the feasibility of staying put. The Red Sox did it, the Marlins did it, and the Rays did it this June.

The study - predictably - concludes it's not feasible to stay at current location long-term.

That takes us to the present point in time, where we await a new study from the ABC Coalition that will analyze where a new stadium would be best-placed. There really isn't much suspense here...the foregone conclusion is that a stadium in - or very close - to Hillsborough County will draw more fans than the current location in somewhat-remote downtown St. Petersburg.

Disclaimer #2: I love watching the Rays play. I think they've grown a great base here and need to stay here. I think they mean a lot of money to the local economy...but I don't think anyone knows exactly how much that is.

Once the ABC Coalition releases its findings on location, the Rays may finally admit that they don't hate The Trop; they hate playing in downtown St. Pete.That's when things will really get fun.

The team will continue to drop hints that it needs a new home at a new place. Grass-root efforts will pop up. Fan groups - on both sides of the bay - will start rallying the troops.

Since the team's current contract with St. Pete doesn't expire anytime soon, Tampa may not happen. However, since St. Pete and Pinellas Co. could work out a deal to tear up the current lease and sign a new one long-term, the Gateway area (near the bay bridges) will start to become the most realistic location.

The public will scoff at the cost ($470M?). The team will become more poignant that it needs help from the community to survive. Execs will "remind" us that they aren't so much a private business, but an integral and beloved part of the community. The Red Sox did it, the Marlins (hilariously) did it, and the Rays will do it.

The team will re-affirm its commitment to stay in the area, but it won't be shy about its need for a new park.

The public will still scoff at the cost.

It will be right about that time a high-ranking team executive (Stuart Sternberg? Matthew Silverman? Stadium Czar Michael Kalt?) will take a trip to Charlotte. Or Portland. Or some other MLB-starved city.

A trip like that would normally go under-the-radar, but a well-placed call to someone like Peter Gammons or Rob Neyer will drop the tip that the Rays are exploring other communities.

Why? Because teams don't get free stadiums unless two cities are competing for their services.

The blogs, editorials, and letters to the editor will fire up again. Local politicians will get nervous. One leader - maybe a Pinellas Co. Commissioner or a St. Pete City Councilman? - will decide his/her legacy will be keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay.

He/she will fire up more grass-root efforts to save the team. Expect more petitions, rallies, and forums.

Fans in Charlotte (or Portland, etc.) will launch similar grass-root efforts to show their interest in a team.

The Rays will kick back and let the scenario run its course.

Baseball fans will fight stadium-haters. City leaders will battle their counterparts in other municipalities. Columnists will stir the pot with provocative headlines. The war will be waged on newsprint, on the airwaves, and of course, online.

And while it will be a war of public opinion, the Rays - mark my words - will NEVER let the issue go to public referendum. After seeing a public stadium vote fail (for a modest $16M price tag) in Sarasota, they won't risk letting the people of Tampa Bay decide their $470M fate. (The Bucs won their referendum in a different era - there is no comparison.)

Private investors will join the fight, offering up their money, land, and services to help the area keep the team.

The "donations" won't be nearly enough to cover the cost of a new stadium, but it will be enough to give the impression that the people of Pinellas County are willing to buck up to keep the economic engine in-town.

When the public still scoffs at the cost of a new stadium, the team casually reminds fans that while they are a beloved part of community, they could be a beloved part of someone else's community.

More trips to the second city follow. The Rays will acknowledge publicly that they are talking to another city. After all, the owners aren't from here - they aren't committed to staying in a town that's not committed to them.

More local politicians start feeling the heat and get legitimately scared the team will leave.

That's where the blueprint ends.

What happens from here? Tough to say.

Every professional franchise uses these steps to try and leverage a new, free stadium. The results vary but often depend on two things: the economy and the volume of the voices of the stadium cheerleaders.

Those voices aren't loud yet, but when people REALLY get scared the team may leave - and it always reaches that climax - you won't be able to tune them out.

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