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Business group to lobby for corporate support for Tampa Bay Rays

Fearful that a drought of corporate support could doom major league baseball in Tampa Bay, a group of mostly Pinellas County business leaders is launching a do-or-die media campaign to pull spectators to Tropicana Field in 2010.

But they might have a tough sell attracting the corporate backing the Rays crave, especially from the business elite in Tampa, according to research and interviews with employers.

The pro-Rays public service announcements, sponsored by the 80-member Clutch Hitters organization and promoting the message "OUR Team," will appear on airwaves and highways across Tampa Bay starting this week.

"Folks, you've got to come out," said Clutch Hitters' volunteer president David Feaster, chief executive of St. Petersburg's Cornerstone Bank. "Sponsors? You've got to open up your pocketbooks. Yes, it's civic responsibility. Yes, companies need to support this team. Outside of everything else, baseball is fun.''

Corporate support for the Rays, particularly season ticket purchases, has lagged painfully, highlighted by recent murmurs among Tampa business leaders about luring the team to a more centrally located stadium across the bay.

In 2009, the ABC Coalition, a group studying the future of baseball in Tampa Bay, surveyed businesses and found nearly twice as many Hillsborough County companies — 39 to 20 — bought season tickets for the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team over the Rays. That support is even more lopsided when you consider that baseball scores higher in popularity polls than hockey.

The ABC group reported that the typical U.S. baseball franchise sells two-thirds of its season tickets to businesses. The Rays get by with only one-third.

Ray Sandelli, head of the Tampa office of the CB Richard Ellis commercial real estate firm, spoke for many business leaders when he suggested St. Petersburg's distance from Tampa suppresses season ticket sales.

"I live in Tampa Palms, my office is in downtown Tampa. For me to go to a game, then drive back to Tampa Palms, is something I unfortunately don't do spontaneously,'' Sandelli said. "You have to consider moving the team to Hillsborough County.''

Henry Gonzalez notices a "definite groundswell" for a cross-bay relocation. Gonzalez should know. He's an executive with the Bank of Tampa and was last year's president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

"You ask the question 'Would more businesspeople go to games if the stadium were in Tampa?' I'd answer, 'Yes, I believe so,' " Gonzalez said.

With attitudes like these, it's no surprise that much of the Clutch Hitters promotion is directed at potential fans and sponsors in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. To make the TV and radio ads, the city of St. Petersburg donated the studio and production-staff time. Other companies donated air time and billboard space free.

Clutch Hitters isn't formally affiliated with the Rays but coordinated the billboard, radio and TV spots to run during a downtime in the baseball team's media buys.

Feaster tried to stay clear of the stadium debate. The Rays, after all, have a contract to play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg until 2027. He stressed that a mid-sized market like Tampa Bay has to pull together.

"I think it's a convenient excuse. There is clearly some regionalism at play, north, south, east and west," Feaster said of Tampa developers who have floated stadium sites in downtown Tampa and along Interstate 4.

In the name of regional unity, Clutch Hitters has tried to broaden its base to include more Hillsborough businesses. It has brought in people like David Townsend from phosphate producer the Mosaic Co. and Bill Hamilton, partner with Tampa's Holland and Knight law firm.

"Losing major league baseball in Tampa Bay would be the equivalent of losing a major industry," Hamilton said. "Clutch Hitters is dedicated to keeping the Rays in the Tampa Bay area, be it in St. Petersburg, be it in Tampa."

Mostly left unsaid is the state of the economy. Flagging profits have cut into most companies' entertainment budgets. Even sports boosters like CB Richard Ellis and the Bank of Tampa have had to consider cutting back purchases of Lightning and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tickets. The Rays represent an even bigger financial stretch.

In public meetings, the Rays have repeatedly cited flagging corporate support — including luxury suite leases — for revenues that rank in baseball's bottom half. Corporate support from across the bay is particularly important. Most large employers are based in Hillsborough.

The Rays declined to comment on corporate support. Spokesman Rick Vaughn issued a brief statement expressing appreciation for Clutch Hitters' "efforts to help build support for the club."

Feaster notes that Rays owners Stuart Sternberg has spent a fortune to build a near-championship team. It's time for companies to help buff up this community "jewel," he said.

"The Rays have done everything they can. The people need to support them," Feaster said. "If it takes you five minutes longer to drive, just do it. I can give you 100 excuses not to do something.''

James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or jthorner@sptimes.com.

Business group to lobby for corporate support for Tampa Bay Rays 03/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 10:06am]
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