“Today’s news is flat-out deflating.”
That was the reaction of Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg on Thursday after being told his plan of having a “Sister City” franchise split between the City of Tampa (not in St. Petersburg where the team plays now) and Montreal was killed by Major League Baseball.
The Sister City plan was given tentative approval to be pursued by MLB in June of 2019. But seemingly out of nowhere, the franchise was told that it won’t be permitted to move forward by MLB’s Executive Council.
And how do we know it was out of nowhere? Because just 12 days ago, 39 prominent members of the Tampa Bay area attached themselves to what amounted to a Dear Taxpayer letter, endorsing the split-season concept for the team of an area with as rich a baseball history as any city in the world.
It’s a who’s who of who you see at every charitable event in town, including the guy that owns some of the best restaurants in the city and the guy that sells us all our beer. You don’t ask the biggest swinging wallets in town to take half a loaf knowing even that portion of bread is no longer on the table.
How do those above, families with reputations going back generations, feel about advocating for a compromise and promptly being thrown down a river by Rob Manfred less than a fortnight later? From what I’ve heard, it’s not great.
You can say whatever you’d like about the politics or motivations of those attached to that letter, but there can be no doubt they have the best interests of this city and region at heart. They’re also the ones that make things happen. And I can’t imagine they’re happy about being hung out to dry by the baseball team they agreed to compromise with less than two weeks ago.
If you walk around Tampa, you’ll see MLB stars more than your own family. Wade Boggs, Lou Piniella, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez ... baseball players and wrestlers in Tampa are like movie stars in LA: They all come because we’re used to seeing them, so they can basically be left alone in public.
The all-team high school tournament is a deep tradition in the city. Spring Training is as much a part of the culture as deviled crabs and gringos ordering La Teresita in their finest broken Spanglish. You won’t find a city with a deeper love of the sport anywhere, and it goes back to the Cuban and Italian immigrants that came to this area to roll cigars a century ago.
But the Rays expected the fulcrum of the nation’s 11th-largest media market, one where tourism is a massive industry, to accept being only good enough to winter in? So the city is supposed to accept Canadians gleefully during the Spring Thaw, but not for the playoffs?
Remember: Tampa is NOT St. Petersburg. None of the people being negotiated with as part of the split city plan are where the team is currently located. While Downtown St. Pete is a gorgeous, emerging neighborhood that’s a wonderful place to live in its own right, it’s absolutely not Tampa.
And right now it’s about a 50-to-70 minute ride to get to a Rays game on a weeknight from most places in Tampa. To go to the worst stadium in MLB by all metrics. I don’t care how good the team is on the field, the fans aren’t coming when it’s also on TV. And yes, they are absolutely watching on TV.
Thus when the owner points to current attendance as a factor in the future location of the franchise...
#Rays Sternberg said they are hoping to see attendance jump this season, and will “look at the stands” as they determine future plans— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) January 20, 2022
That reads as a giant “whatever, bro” to many Tampa politicians. Tampa didn’t negotiate the Rays current lease. Hillsborough County didn’t build a stadium that’s a shining example of what not to do in construction.
When one local Tampa-area official told me “coming in saying “Tampa is not suitable” (for a full-time team) and now having to change course, I think it’s going to be hard to turn that around,” you can understand the sentiment.
“In the short term, it means everyone is going to regroup and look at what the options are,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen told me. “There is going to be a major effort to keep the team in this region.” So publicly, everyone is saying the right things.
But if you think the Rays will “just move the team to Montreal,” those I’ve talked to at the club say that’s not a viable option and it won’t be pursued. While the team very well might leave, it won’t be for Canada. The Sister City plan was the only way the economics of Quebec made any sense.
If you want proof that investment in a market matters to future success look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who started selling out long before they started winning Stanley Cups. Owner Jeff Vinik is heavily invested in the Tampa Bay area, bought up and redeveloped plenty of real estate by his waterside arena, and is perhaps the best owner in all of sports.
And he did it all with his own money (with an assist from Bill Gates), knowing if he invested not just in his team but the city, he’d make it back in spades down the road.
When Stu Sternberg pitched a plan to build a ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City before the Sister City proposal was made, this was his opening offer towards a facility expected to cost at least $900 million.
$150 million is what Stu Sternberg initially said the Rays would contribute to a new Major League stadium in Tampa. https://t.co/K05E6I6WJe— Michael Lortz (@TBBaseballMkt) April 15, 2021
Quite simply, that ain’t good enough.
There is some appetite in a city that loves baseball to provide some public support for a stadium that will now require a roof since they’ll be in Tampa full-time. You can go open-air in April, but in August that would mean hot, humid, and hot dog sales during endless rain delays.
The cost of any new ballpark with a roof is conservatively $1.3 billion. Will Sternberg be willing to put up even half? Does he even have the money? Is there much desire for a tax, TIF, or other fundraising mechanism in Hillsborough County to raise the massive dollars needed?
The answer to all of the above is probably not.
More off topic: Keep in mind the last time the voters of Hillsborough County voted to tax themselves for something as essential as public transportation, a decades-long campaign that finally succeeded overwhelmingly, one local pol said the voters didn’t know what they were doing and sued. And Because Florida, the tax was repealed by the state Supreme Court.
While Tampa is willing to put something towards a stadium, it’s probably much less than half the cost. And while Sternberg isn’t asking for a completely free stadium, the money he’s offering is a pittance, and he might be able to get one somewhere else gratis. To put it bluntly, they’re not close.
And area politicians merely have to look downtown to find a sports franchise that wins, pays for itself, is a proud community partner, and really wants to be here.
The Rays asked a city to accept an open marriage, but now their side piece is gone and they’re looking to come back home and be faithful. “Nah, baby, you’re the one I wanted all along.” Good luck with that.
The lease of the Tampa Bay Rays runs out at the end of the 2027 season. It is notoriously iron-clad, and it’s unlikely the team would get to leave early without a massive payout to St. Petersburg.
There are plenty of billionaires looking for an MLB team that would be willing to put up the capital necessary to build a ballpark in the Bay. You can sell the team, Stu, and save the fans and everyone plenty of mess. And you’ll make a pretty penny on the transaction, if the minority partners that sued you for this “relentless scheme” don’t take up too much of it.
Or you can move it. It’s your toy, and if you can find some other city to pony up the cash that is within your rights. But don’t blame the fans of either side of Tampa Bay, or canards like attendance, for grabbing the cash and the U-Hauls. Because that is a crap narrative you know not to be true. Right now you aren’t close to putting up your share, and we’re not paying for you. We are, proudly, not Miami.
I just don’t think this is working out. It’s not us, it’s you. We wish you the best.
P.S. You’ll be sleeping on the couch until the divorce clears six years from now. Don’t worry, the mattress pulls out.