Joe Henderson: Public’s bill for Tampa Bay Rays stadium? How about zero? – Florida Politics

Joe Henderson: Public’s bill for Tampa Bay Rays stadium? How about zero?

The long-awaited announcement last Friday that the Tampa Bay Rays have chosen Tampa’s historic Ybor City as the place they’d prefer for a new stadium brought the inevitable question of how much the public should pay for the massive project.

I have an idea: How about nothing?

I am not against professional sports. I love baseball. I am a voter for the baseball Hall of Fame. While with the late, great Tampa Tribune, I covered the ups and downs of this area’s attempt to land a big-league baseball team. It took nearly two decades from concept to first pitch, while this area repeatedly got played by owners looking for sweeter deals from their own towns.

I covered the public fleecing known as Raymond James Stadium, and chronicled much of the pursuit that resulted in building what now is known as Amalie Arena.

It all taught me this: If there is a bad deal and taxpayers get stuck, don’t blame the team owners. Blame your elected officials.

The deal to build Raymond James Stadium for the Buccaneers was a wildly horrible deal for the taxpayers of Tampa and Hillsborough County, but that wasn’t the fault of the late Malcolm Glazer, who owned the Bucs at the time.

I always believed he finally signed a lease because he ran out of things to ask for. That’s not his fault.

St. Petersburg doesn’t get off the hook either. City fathers foolishly built what now is called Tropicana Field long before it had a baseball occupant because they were determined that Tampa would not get the team.

They were left with an eyesore at the far end of the Tampa Bay marketplace while taxpayers were handed the bill for a stadium that was passed without a referendum, and leaders had no leverage on a negotiating a lease.

After multiple failed attempts to lure an existing team or win the first round of expansion, the Devil Rays held all the cards when St. Petersburg was finally “awarded” a club.

That’s when all the warts at the Trop were exposed. I remember thinking “uh oh” when the second game the team ever played failed to sell out.

As seasons went by and the Rays continued to languish at the bottom of MLB’s attendance chart while TV ratings were strong, it was clear fans liked the Rays but were unwilling to make the drive through stifling traffic to catch a weeknight game.

Oh, and fun fact for those who say that won’t be different if a new stadium is built in Ybor (the geographic center of the market): The Lightning have sold out 133 consecutive hockey games (including playoffs) with 19,092 seats at Amalie Arena.

The Rays’ average attendance last year for 80 games at the Trop was 15,670. That was by far the worst in the majors and nearly 3,000 per game less than the next-lowest team, the Oakland A’s.

Do I really believe Rays owner Stu Sternberg will privately finance the whole stadium project?

No.

But he is going to have to do a lot better than his initial offer that amounted to about 18 percent of the estimated cost. After that, it will be time to turn to those in the business community who stand to benefit most. And don’t forget that all of MLB benefits by a healthy franchise here, so it ought to pay its share of the cost too. In 2017, MLB generated more than $10 billion.

Only then should public officials start thinking about ways to bridge the gap. If the gap turns out to be a gulf, oh well.

Officials must demand the Rays come into this deal with transparency and realism. If they are unwilling to do that, it tells us all we need to know.

Upset sports fans can always turn to the Lightning.

That is, if they can get a ticket.

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

3 Comments

  1. New stadium raising attendance in a meaningful way is hogwash. The “honeymoon effect” may give them a short-lived gain in attendance, but it is not guaranteed to last. The Marlins built a new stadium to return to dismal attendance in their second year there. The same thing will happen for the Rays. Support will die once stadium is secured until owner wants new home in 15 years. Baseball attendance overall is declining as fans age. Majority of fans are over 55 now without young fans to replace them.

    The Lightning have only sold out in recent years (following greater success on the ice). They had mediocre attendance for many seasons in the current arena. Though they did well at the “Thunderdome” (now Trop) with 18,000+ average in their worst season in St. Pete when hockey was even less popular than it is currently (yes, the Lightning could have fewer fans; they did in the 1990s). At lot of the modern success is thanks to Vinik’s push for visibility of the franchise in the community. Handing out $50,000 checks to charities every home game is great PR.

    $500 million of taxpayer money will go to stadium that sees 28,000 in first season and then 17,000 the next year. Sternberg will blame fans for not showing up while city and state fund continue funding his failure of a franchise. Necessary functions of government will be cut so a few thousand people can watch a boring sport.

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