ST. PETERSBURG — The last time MLB commissioner Rob Manfred spoke at Tropicana Field in August, he called for urgency and pushed for action in the Rays oft-stalled pursuit of a new stadium.
Now that the Rays have advanced to selecting and committing to a site in Ybor City — and one he says he likes — Manfred on Thursday pointed to two more hurdles on their path to success.
One, that Tampa Bay businesses absolutely, positively have to step up as a big part of the financing and revenue-increasing plan.
"The business community here needs to be engaged in this effort," Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times after MLB's spring training media session at Tropicana Field.
"I understand it's not New York. But there are significant businesses in this community that need to be involved in the effort because it's good for community over the long haul."
And two, that the deal worked out has to be favorable enough financially to the Rays — thus not cost them too much — that they can substantially increase their revenues enough to compete with their bigger-market brethren.
"It's crucial that we get a facility here that allows the Rays to get more toward the middle of the industry in terms of their revenues," Manfred said.
"They just have such a huge gap between where most of the clubs are and where they are that it makes it extraordinarily difficult to field a competitive team year after year. And we need to close that gap. We don't just need a facility, we need a facility that's good enough to close that gap."
Overall, Manfred seemed pleased with the progress, though properly restrained given the remaining hurdles, starting with figuring out how to pay the estimated $800 million for a retractable-roof stadium (or around $650 million with a fixed lid).
"I think this is an important step," Manfred said. "One step at a time. You can't get financing until you know where you are going to build and what the development opportunities are and what the prospects are for long-term success given the location of that site. So it's a really important step."
As hard as it was, and as long as it took to get to this point, the most challenging part of the task ahead is developing the financing plan..
Well, that and explaining how that Brancusi Bird in Space sculpture translates to the design.
The Tampa Bay Rays 2020 group, headed by Chuck Sykes and Ron Christaldi, is charged with marshalling the business community. There also has to be a governmental component contributing public money in some form, with Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan and others exploring assorted taxing districts and other creative mechanisms that look more palatable. (Manfred added later during the Governor's Baseball Dinner at the Trop that he is "really confident" in that governmental cooperation.)
And the Rays are going to have to write a big check, too, certainly larger than the $150 million principal owner Stuart Sternberg first floated.
What about Major League Baseball? It seems to be doing okay these days. (Even better with all the players that teams haven't signed yet under the conveniently new austerity program.)
Unlike its football counterparts, MLB doesn't contribute directly to the costs. But it does help in a small way, Manfred explained, in allowing teams to deduct — and thus get a credit for — what it spends on debt service from its revenue sharing calculations. In the Rays' case, that would mean they would get more than the current $40 million or so annually from their partners to, in theory, invest in the project.
The Rays have a long way to go until they are dodging the Ybor chickens and navigating the brick side streets to hold a groundbreaking. And not that much time to get there, given that their deal with St. Petersburg about an early exit from the Trop use agreement expires in less than a year.
But, in Manfred's eyes, they are in a lot better place than they were six months ago. While he wouldn't call it their "last chance," he seems to consider it their best chance. As of now — Al Lang/Albert Whitted waterfront stadium, anyone? — anyway.
"I like the (Ybor) site," he said. "I think they made a wise choice of the ones I've been made aware of. And I'm hopeful that they can make it work."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays