Rays' Silverman: 'Regional' culture still lacking
Wake up, good morning and batter up. Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman hit a familiar subject on unfamiliar turf Wednesday night, telling a packed room at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce annual dinner that regionalism -- embracing the broader Tampa Bay area as one business market -- still needs some serious work around here. (Photo: Bob Croslin of the St. Petersburg Times.)
It was a hardball subject delivered softball style. The St. Pete Chamber dinner, over plates of beef and shrimp in the main ballroom of the Renaissance Vinoy, is traditionally a celebration of all things St. Petersburg. Even St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker (a chamber alum) spoke and hammed it up a bit in front of a friendly crowd. That's not unique -- that's what chambers of commerce built around individual cities do best.
But Silverman, now 32, played a powerful card as the evening's keynote speaker. Before his remarks, he warmed up his audience of several hundred business people by showing a video highlighting some of the Rays' 2008 worst-to-first season. It did not hurt that the soundtrack was from the classic baseball movie The Natural. Hey, I was impressed and so was the crowd's applause. Bring it on, Boston. Bring it on Yankees, Silverman said. The Rays are ready. And the Rays president reminded his audience that it is exactly that kind of magic -- a Tampa Bay baseball team playing in its first World Series -- that can really help bind a larger regional community together.
Silverman's real business message seems pretty clear to me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime season we can all enjoy. Let's hope that "magic continues," as he put it, as we approach the 2009 season. But the longer-term success of the Rays franchise -- the business of owning a baseball team -- will depend not only on the Rays attracting a more committed fan base from a broader geographic area. It will require the Tampa Bay area to embrace itself as a more unified business region. The other 29 Major League Baseball teams operate in 26 markets, and each one considers itself a single metropolitan entity. Can that happen here?
Silverman said the Rays had only 300 season ticket holders for its spring training games in St. Petersburg. Now that spring training will be played in the revitalized Charlotte Sports Park (see rendering), south of Tampa Bay and just north of Port Charlotte. the Rays have 3,000 spring training season ticket holders and every seat of every spring training game already is spoken for. And, Silverman noted, by playing some regular season games in Orlando last year, the Rays gained a stronger TV audience in central Florida.
It's all about broadening the Rays' regional base and expanding its brand, Silverman said. He praised the ABC (A Baseball Community) committee of business leaders (track their actions on this blog), charged with finding some potential locations (here are seven ABC-identified sights, all in Pinellas County, so far) for a new Rays stadium, for including a diversity of members. One ABC member is Steve Raymund, the former CEO of Tech Data Corp., who also officially became chair of the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce at Wednesday night's dinner.
Though St. Petersburg clings to legal commitments that would keep the Rays within city limits, clearly the greater good of keeping the Rays a healthy franchise for the entire region is a growing theme (as St. Pete Times columnist Howard Troxler explored in a recent column). Mayor Baker has maxed out his terms in office, so the race for a new mayor is quickly gathering steam. Who knows what a change in city administration might mean for the Rays' future.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist