What is the Rays End Game in the Tampa Area?
How do you get people to come see a good team in a bad building away from a city's populations center? How does said team get a new stadium in a world where cities seemingly are begging owners to allow them to build new palaces at the expense of everyday citizens??
All good questions that are not easily answered, particularly when it involves the curious plight of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays more often than not have been a better than average baseball team operating on a shoestring budget in front of minor league sized crowds. Perhaps more than any other team in Professional Sports, the Rays operate in a version of a Catch-22 they cannot get out of.
For years, they've tried to find a way to get out of Tropicana Field, an oddly built "Dome" that has a baseball field shoehorned inside of it. It was built as a "Multi-Purpose" facility by the City of St. Petersburg with the hope of drawing a Professional Baseball team despite not really being a baseball friendly building in the late 1980's and was finished in 1990 which in this era is an eternity ago.
Major League Baseball expanded to the area in the mid 1990's and the ownership group who secured the franchise found themselves with an already built stadium in St. Pete, some 25-30 miles from the City of Tampa.
Somewhere along the line, the Rays and the City agreed to a deal that bound the team to the Trop and St. Pete until 2028. Which is a long time--even from current day. The stadium, despite several renovations does not offer the revenue opportunities that most of the more modern buildings do.
The Rays have suffered with poor attendance pretty much since they started. This season (2019) the team, despite competing well in the American League East, is averaging just over 14,000 per game. The only team worse--Miami who's averaging under 10,000 a game.
Over the past couple seasons, Rays Primary Owner Stuart Sternberg has tried to find ways to get a new stadium built. Just a year or so ago, Sternberg debuted renderings of a stadium he thought might get built in Tampa near Ybor City. It never happened.
This past week---word came out MLB was willing to allow the Rays to negotiate a "2-City" deal where they could play half a season in the St. Pete area and half in Montreal with another investor jumping on board to help with the Montreal part of this.
Despite the crazy proposal, the merits have and continue to be discussed like they'd actually happen. Sternberg held a News Conference on Tuesday to tout the deal, essentially telling the residents of the Tampa Bay area he didn't consider it viable to keep his team there and that Montreal was inevitable.
Needless to say---it didn't go over well....
Sternberg does not have the financial resources to build his own stadium. Research says he's worth somewhere in the $800 million range and as far as a Pro Sports Franchise owner goes---it's not enough to build a stadium or get funding on his own for a $500 million to $1 billion building plus operate his team.
His dilemma is simple: St. Pete wants to keep the Rays and is more than willing to help find a location for a new Rays stadium. As long as Sternberg pays for it. Which in many ways should be applauded as too many cities roll over and are willing to sell their soul for a new stadium for Pro Sports teams. Sternberg can't afford it and therefore we have a version of a Mexican Standoff.
Meanwhile in Montreal, Stephan Bronfman has been aggressively pursuing a way to bring baseball back to Quebec and has clearly gotten MLB's attention. He also appears to have the funding to get a stadium built and is more than willing to share a team if that is what it comes to.
What does this mean to baseball in the Tampa area?
That's a good question. I kind of wonder about the viability of Major League Baseball in the state as the two lowest attended franchises in the game are located in the Sunshine State. No, I don't live in the Tampa area, so I can't accurately tell you how deep the loyalties run, but I will tell you this: Having grown up and spent most of my early life in Florida, precious few people who live there are actually from there. If their family has been there for a couple decades, said family didn't originate there either.
Much like other large southern metropolitan areas, there are fans of most every team in the region and often you'll find them cheering for a popular opponent because said opponent was the team their parents, grandparents or their grandparents parents rooted for.
Sternberg is playing a short game here---yes, he's got a crappy deal with St. Pete that he inherited. He's stuck with it. He's playing any card he can find to get something better like any other businessman would do, I get that.
But I don't think folks in Tampa are willing to fork over the money to build him a stadium. They've shot down any proposal that has simmered to the surface before and likely will again. Maybe Montreal is a legitimate option for Sternberg and his team, maybe it isn't.
No matter what happens, we likely won't find out until 2028 because the City of St. Petersburg, while willing to entertain options on a new building in their city, isn't so willing to let the Rays off the hook if they go anywhere else.
Or to quote David Byrne and The Talking Heads----"Same as it Ever Was".....