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How much has changed in 10 years of the Rays’ stadium saga?

Despite Stu Sternberg’s denial, the Rays are following the same blueprint as every other stadium campaign.

“Expect a tug-of-war: first between two local communities, then two communities separated by thousands of miles. Blogs, petitions, editorials, and maybe even a full-page ad or two. Anger. Heartbreak … all things the Tampa Bay area has to look forward to … as the Rays lobby for a new state-of-the-art baseball stadium.”

I first wrote that paragraph 10 years ago, in my July 3, 2009 column, “How the Rays stadium saga will go down.”

A decade later, it’s clear not much has changed.

I acknowledged at the time the post was speculative, but also that I had covered enough bare-knuckles stadium shakedowns to know the playbook pro owners all seem to count on. So how did that 2009 column hold up?

Let’s take a look, with my 2019 comments in bold:

— July 3, 2009 —

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 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.

Ten years later, Rays owner Stu Sternberg swore his “sister city” split-season pitch was “not a page out of a playbook” and that he likes to be different. Except, for the last 10 years, almost every move the Rays have made off-the-field, including a half-dozen relocation threats, has been out of the standard “build leverage for stadium subsidies” playbook.

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.

Later in 2009, that ABC Coalition report affirmed the foregone conclusion that Downtown St. Petersburg, at the time a less-desirable live-work-play destination than it is now, was too remote of a location for most potential baseball fans. 

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.

In 2008, the Rays commissioned a study that indicated their impact was $122 million per year at the time, then later suggested their true impact was closer to $200 million. Not only were economists quick to dispute those figures, but the Rays were too. In 2013, one team executive suggested St. Petersburg should let the team explore leaving because they were hurting the city’s economy. Go figure.

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.

That moment came in June 2010, when Sternberg shifted his explanation of poor attendance from the facility to the facility’s location.

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

Over the last decade, stadium support groups have included the Clutch Hitters, Top Off the Trop, Build it Downtown Tampa, Baseball Forever St. Pete, and most recently, the not-so-grassroots group, Tampa Bay Rays 2020.

Since the team’s current contract with St. Pete doesn’t expire anytime soon, Tampa may not happen. However, since St. Pete and Pinellas County 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.

Former Mayor Bill Foster offered to let the Rays explore the Gateway/Mid-Pinellas area shortly after he was elected in the fall of 2009. But despite the robust tax revenues available to fund a ballpark in that region, the Rays said they wouldn’t even consider it until they could explore Tampa first. Years later, the Rays were still exploring and several Pinellas possibilities near the bay bridges were developed without considerations for baseball.

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.

That $470 million projection in 2009 grew with inflation and construction prices to the $892 million sticker-shock figure the team estimated in 2018. But the Rays have relentlessly campaigned that they are part of the fabric of Tampa Bay’s community, and they have amplified their case that they need community support ($$) to stick around.

The team will reaffirm 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.

Check. Check. Check.

It will be right about that time a high-ranking team executive (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.

Sternberg started talking to Montreal, and it was a well-placed call to ESPN’s Jeff Passan that ensured one little tip would fuel more than a week’s worth of stadium talk.

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 County Commissioner or a St. Pete City Councilman? — will decide his/her legacy will be keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay.

This turned out to be Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

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

Hagan has spent an enormous amount of time and effort collaborating with developers and business leaders to make an Ybor stadium happen. Some in the Tampa community have followed his lead, while others in St. Petersburg have vilified him.

Fans in Charlotte (or Portland, etc.) will launch similar grassroots efforts to show their interest in a team. The Rays will kick back and let the scenario run its course.

So far, it’s happened in Portland and Montreal. The Rays wouldn’t mind if another city or two joined in too.

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.

We saw a three-year civil war in Tampa, with baseball boosters fighting subsidy critics in their own backyard, as columnists and sports talk hosts fanned the flames.

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.)

Still true.

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

See above notes on Ybor City.

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.

There were lots of developers who wanted to be involved in the Ybor stadium project but, as predicted, none of them wanted to finance an actual stadium that someone else would profit from. 

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.

Check.

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.

To Sternberg’s credit, he has continued to say he wants to be in Tampa Bay long-term. But he also hasn’t been afraid to continuously flirt with the idea of relocation.

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

That’s where we are today.

That’s where the blueprint ends. What happens from here? Tough to say.

Still 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.

And that’s why the Rays are trying to reach that climax before the economy slows down again. However, they’re still feeling the impact of anti-subsidy sentiment left over from the Great Recession, which was magnified by the Marlins’ well-publicized fleecing of Florida. That’s made Sternberg’s subsidy campaign decidedly uphill.

So the next time you think Sternberg is making major stadium news, realize it’s probably not the climax of a 10-year soap opera. In fact, in the last decade, not much has changed at all in the stadium saga except the volume of some voices. 

Written By

Noah Pransky is a multiple award-winning investigative reporter, most recently with the CBS affiliate in Tampa. He’s uncovered major stories such as uncovering backroom deals in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and other political investigations. Pransky also ran a blog called Shadow of the Stadium, giving readers a deep dive into the details of potential financial deals and other happenings involving the Tampa Bay- area sports business.

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