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?
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.