Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/13/11

It won’t be my decision, or solely my decision. But eventually, major-league baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it’s going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check (to buy the team). But it’s going to get vaporized.

Stuart Sternberg, principal owner of the Tampa Bay Rays

Almost immediately after the Rays were defeated by the Rangers in the American League Division Series, owner Stu Sternberg immediately dropped a bomb: the team might not be long for Tampa Bay. This certainly wasn’t the first time that Sternberg (or others) have noted that Tampa Bay’s conspicuously poor attendance hasn’t been much improved by the team’s winning ways, or that poor attendance could make it hard for the team’s payroll to compete with other AL East teams. Tropicana Field is horribly positioned, right next to the Gulf of Mexico and absurdly far from much of the population in the area. Just 19 percent of the more than three million who live in the market are actually located within 30 minutes’ drive of the stadium. A new, better-positioned stadium could substantially improve attendance, if only the Rays didn’t have a use agreement in place through 2027 with Tropicana Field.

But these complaints are chronic, and we’ve heard them for years. So it was striking that, a few minutes after the end of Game Four, the owner basically said that the team would have to move if the current situation didn’t change. Is the team really going to move?

Absolutely not, says Jonah Keri, the author of a book about the Rays (The Extra 2%) and a fan of the only team to move in the last four decades, the Montreal Expos. “It’s largely a power play,” says Keri. “There’s always going to be a weakest market, and it happens that this is one of them.” Sternberg has focused on the stadium issue because the empty seats are glaringly obvious, but many analysts have pointed out that Sternberg’s comments aren’t really about a new stadium. They’re about leverage.

That’s the message I got from Noah Pransky, an investigative reporter with WTSP in Tampa Bay, and he has comprehensively chronicled the stadium saga at his blog Shadow of the Stadium. Pransky and Keri both told me that, since the latest round of expansion, there are basically no new baseball markets that would be better for a baseball team than Tampa Bay already is. And Pransky blogged about a Peter Gammons interview that put it even more colorfully. Numerous teams used the prospect of moving to St. Petersburg as leverage to get their cities to build them new ballparks. Once a team was located in St. Pete, that leverage vanished. “You need to be able to blackmail people,” Gammons explained, and you do that by having another attractive option waiting in the wings. But now, Tampa Bay has its own team, so, “There’s no place that you can say, ‘I’m moving there.’”

So Sternberg’s leverage may be hurt by baseball’s overexpansion, while the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has been disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn. Even as fans have sympathy for the team’s desire for a new stadium — not many people are diehard defenders of the Trop — their appetite for huge public spending on a new stadium is notably diminished. “Almost every police and fire station in Florida has had to make major cuts,” Pransky told me. “Almost every school district. So it’s very hard, no matter how much they love baseball, to see spending on baseball over other needs.”

After a decade of losing under previous owner Vince Naimoli, with terrible TV ratings and terrible attendance in a poorly-located stadium, the Rays were a laughingstock of baseball — and that’s when savvy Wall Streeter Stu Sternberg bought the team for a bargain. (Stuart Sternberg declined to comment for this article.) Despite his complaints, he has notably increased the value of the team, and its television ratings. But because of a television contract signed during the bad old days, the team hasn’t gotten a chance to realize much profit from its bigger television audience. As the St. Petersburg Times reported in 2010, under the terms of a TV contract signed in 2008 that runs through 2016, Fox gets most of the profits: “Fox, which carries games all over the state on its FSN and Sun Sports channels, pays the Rays an annual fee, then collects the bulk of advertising revenue, as well as payments from cable companies that want to carry the games.”

On television, unlike with the stadium, the Rays have a huge audience, but they aren’t profiting from it due to a bad television deal, signed before the team became a league champion and perennial playoff contender. In 2010, the Rays had the fifth-highest local television ratings in the majors. (And, in this year’s ALDS, Tampa Bay got a higher television rating than the Rangers, last year’s AL champion.) The Rays’ overall ratings in the 2011 regular season dropped by a substantial percentage this year, prompting Maury Brown recently to write that Tampa Bay doesn’t “deserve the Rays.”

But that doesn’t have to be the case. I spoke to Vince Gennaro, an expert in the business of baseball, and he was very careful to parse Sternberg’s complaint: “I didn’t hear him say that the market is untenable, I heard him say that the situation is untenable.” Tampa Bay is certainly one of the 30 best markets in the United States to have a baseball team. However, Gennaro told me that he didn’t see any way to solve the Rays’ financial woes without a new stadium. Referring to the Deadspin-leaked financials for the Rays, Gennaro said it was “stunning” that the Rays attendance hadn’t increased more between 2007 and 2008, when the team gained 31 games in the standings and won the American League. With anemic growth like that, “You’re going to need a major change in the primary revenue streams, and you come to your live date as your number one.”

So that’s why Sternberg is so set on getting a better stadium, though you can bet that he’s keeping a laser focus on getting a better television deal the next time around. But because he has no real leverage, with no other city or potential owner courting him, all he can do is try to get the local community on his side to pressure the city of St. Petersburg to release him from his obligation to Tropicana Field, or alternately hope that Major League Baseball will step in and demand that the city cut him a deal. “Sadly,” Steve Slowinski told me, “I think [St. Petersburg Mayor Bill] Foster has taken notes on what happened down in Miami, where local officials got bullied by Loria into giving him everything he wants.” That’s why Pransky predicts much more of the same in the foreseeable future: “We have many more years of posturing, below-average attendance, and veiled threats.”

PLAYERS: Peter Gammons
TEAMS: Tampa Bay Rays
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