Sternberg’s occasional warning is business as usual in the Rays stadium debate
ST. PETERSBURG — So, three hours before the first pitch of the season on Thursday, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg threw a curveball himself.
It wasn’t mean. It was not unexpected. It really didn’t change anything. And yet, it still created an unmistakable buzz in some parts of the community.
Standing in front of the dugout before the Rays face the Tigers on Opening Day, Sternberg said he was optimistic a deal for a new stadium could be reached in St. Pete by the end of the season. ‘calendar year. As the statements went, it was about as simple and harmless as it gets.
But, of course, it didn’t stop there.
Sternberg casually said – and you can purposely assume – that if a deal isn’t done in that window, “then there’s no deal to be done.”
It was the curve that bent some knees.
It wasn’t something that hadn’t been brought up a thousand times before by Sternberg, Major League Baseball officials, politicians, journalists, fans and passing social media trolls. We’ve been hearing for years that the Rays were getting closer to a point where they could start talking to other markets about preparing for the franchise’s transfer once the Tropicana Field user agreement expires after the 2027 season. .
The difference this time is that the commentary didn’t fit the mood. During the year that Ken Welch served in the St. Pete mayor’s office, the stadium’s momentum returned in the direction of St. Pete. The announcement in January that Welch had selected development company Rays and the Hines to redevelop the Trop field made the potential for a new stadium in Tampa Bay more realistic than at any time in the past decade.
So within minutes of Tampa Bay Times Rays writer Marc Topkin’s story about Sternberg’s comments on tampabay.com, the phones started buzzing. Was there a flaw in St. Pete? Are the Rays plotting their escape? Does Randy Arozarena have an Expos sticker on his car?
Few storylines occupy as much bandwidth in this market as the Rays Stadium saga. It has all the ingredients for a delicious debate. The St. Pete vs. Tampa rivalry. Taxpayer versus millionaire. Roof against open air. Public transport, TV revenue, empty seats, economic impact, franchise values.
Each step of the process is scrutinized; every comment goes into a blender.
So, was there a purpose to Sternberg’s words? Yes.
Was this a new escalation in the stadium struggle? No.
Sternberg has a rare commodity — there are only 30 major league franchises — in a market that has underperformed at the box office by industry standards. It is indisputable. Since 2017, the average team has attracted around 26,400 fans per game. Tampa Bay drew about 13,500.
Making the disparity even more glaring, the Rays have been one of the most successful teams on the field ever since.
Sternberg wants to get closer to the middle of the MLB pack in terms of revenue, and securing an attractive stadium deal is one way to do that. That’s pretty much the motivation behind everything he says when it comes to stadium conversations.
Does that mean that the December deadline and the “so there’s no deal to be done” comment were veiled threats? Of course they were. Does that mean the ongoing conversations with Tampa/Hillsborough County about a possible stadium are leverage? Of course they are.
Does this mean that the deal at St. Pete is doomed? No, this is not the case.
Look, I don’t know if the Rays will come to an agreement with St. Pete and Pinellas County. It’s a remarkably complex negotiation, with the Rays hoping to improve their financial situation, the city and county hoping to get the most bang for their buck in the community by creating a central attraction for the redevelopment of 86 acres of prime real estate, and the Hines Group hopes to make a healthy profit after a decade of effort.
None of these stakeholders need to enter into this agreement. The Rays could wait out their lease and potentially get a better deal in another market. St. Pete and Pinellas County may chase other businesses to spur economic development in this area adjacent to downtown. Hines can build anywhere in the world.
Presumably, that’s why the Rays couldn’t come to an agreement with the former mayors of St. Pete. Or Tampa, for that matter. Everyone looks out for their own interests, as they should.
And sometimes that means reminding the politician on the other side of the negotiating table that you have influence. Or if you’re a politician, remind the businessman that you have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.
And that’s all that’s going on here. Just the normal back and forth of intense negotiations.
With, you know, a baseball team, the future of a city, and generations of fans at stake.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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