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Forget attendance, this is what the Rays really want in a new stadium

Despite his denials, Stu Sternberg is focused on real estate and development

I cringe every time I hear baseball fans, sportstalk hosts, and the Twitterverse argue over which long-term stadium location will draw the greatest number of fans through the Rays’ turnstiles.

In fact, it has been 10 years of cringing (as the wrinkles in my forehead will attest), as Tampa Bay fans — and now those in Montreal, too — spend most of their time arguing about attendance, with very little discussion about what really matters to Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg: revenues.

Yes, attendance is related to revenues, but it’s really just one piece of the puzzle.  And the future of the Rays franchise is much more likely to be determined by real estate than by butts in seats.

Ancillary development has become the new pro sports business model: from the Red Sox taking over streets and businesses outside Fenway Park nearly 20 years ago to Jeff Vinik using the Lightning as a loss leader to build a real estate empire in downtown Tampa.

Look at how the Braves have built two new ballparks (regular season and spring training) in unlikely places, where they’ve been able to take advantage of major development deals to create brand new neighborhoods around their stadiums. That creates a district where the profits outside the stadium can dwarf those made on the inside.

In a 2017 interview, Rays President Brian Auld said “we aren’t looking to subsidize our baseball team with development projects.”

But Auld was not being honest, as a public records request to the Tampa Sports Authority revealed the team commissioned a study on real estate opportunities in Ybor City.

In fact, a 10News WTSP investigation exposed the Rays had been working with private developers, as well as County Commissioner Ken Hagan, for years to assemble a ballpark district in Ybor City.

I also reported last year how the team might make more money simply by staying at Tropicana Field than by building a new Tampa ballpark, even if attendance in St. Petersburg continues to fall. That’s because the Rays stand to collect 50 percent of all redevelopment revenues from the Trop’s oversized parking lot — possibly hundreds of millions of dollars — for as long as they remain in St. Pete.

How much is Sternberg’s mind on that money and that money on his mind?

When I asked him last year if he would give up the redevelopment rights if the team was successful in leaving the Trop before 2027, he signaled he was not ready to honor that part of his contract.

That’s why St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman currently finds himself in a bind, unable to move forward with Trop redevelopment until he gets straight answers and cooperation from the Rays.

So, the next time you see headlines about the Rays scouting out stadium locations, recognize it’s more about real estate than attendance.

And the next time you see Sternberg and Kriseman firing shots across the bow, recognize it’s more about leverage on real estate rights than it is about where the Rays will be playing in 2028.

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.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Bob Schultz

    July 12, 2019 at 6:14 am

    Slick Rick blew it when he let the Rays look elsewhere. The next Mayor will determine the future with the Rays.

  2. TroDaBumsOut!

    July 12, 2019 at 10:51 am

    Puh-leeze! Stop all the commenting and hot air on the Rays. Sternberg has made himself and his team persona non grata around here. Throw ’em the hell out and let ’em go play in Olympic Stadium … Tropicana Field North! Au revoir, Stuie! Ne laissez pas la porte vous frapper en sortant!

  3. Nick Casalinuovo

    July 13, 2019 at 6:07 am

    Have you ever tried to buy a ticket to a Rays game?? It is a adventure. Need to open a acct. With MLB need to create a secret password with uppercase lowercase letters numbers symbols. Now if you make a mistake you will never get back into it.
    I do not want to put my tickets on my phone. I want to pick them up at the box office. I do not want to put my credit card on another internet site that tells me it is protected yup. I would like to talk to a human being to get mt tickets impossible. It goes on and on and on. So I dont buy game tickets. And you know what I am not alone. Why do they make it so hard to purchase a ticket is beyond me

    • Ryan

      July 13, 2019 at 9:21 am

      Buy your ticket at the stadium box office before the game. I guarantee you, great seats ARE still available.

  4. Ron Brewer

    July 14, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Perhaps the team would be better served if fans had to pay to watch the game on TV. If the price was right, I suspect their would be a lot more fans willing to pay to watch the game in the comfort of their own home.

    • Ben

      July 16, 2019 at 1:29 am

      Fans already do pay money to watch games on tv. Sports networks and their carriage fees are the most expensive part of cable television packages. Sports teams make more money and get more subsidies from people who don’t care about sports than the people who watch them play.

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