Friday, April 20, 2018

Tampa Realtor, wife of baseball’s Gary Sheffield, stars in not-quite-real reality TV show

On the first episode of TV’s newest real estate show, Tampa agent DeLeon Sheffield welcomes client John Racener to a large house for sale.

"I love this part right here," Racener exclaims as they step onto a covered lanai. "Oooo, awesome,’’ he says of the master bedroom. And when asked if this house "is the one," he replies: "I think it is."

In fact, Racener already owns the house — and has for the past seven years.

Not everything is what it appears to be in Sheffield Real Estate, a "reality" show that debuted last month starring Sheffield and her husband, former Major League Baseball star Gary Sheffield. Some of the buyers really aren’t buyers. While the show portrays DeLeon as a leading Realtor in luxury homes, she actually ranks far below Tampa Bay’s top agents — some of whom declined to let camera crews film their high-end properties.

But even if the show on the FYI and A&E networks sometimes blurs reality — like other reality TV shows do — it is an entertaining plug not only for the DeLeon Sheffield Company but also for Tampa Bay. Interspersed among scenes of clients trooping through houses are shots of the Pinellas beaches, Ybor City and downtown Tampa.

"I would hope that by seeing this, people will say, ‘Wow, Tampa Bay has something to offer; this is really beautiful,’" Sheffield said.

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Now 41, she is the child of Realtors but initially made her mark as a gospel singer — at 7, she became the youngest person ever nominated for a Grammy.

Sheffield was still pursing an entertainment career when she met her future husband in 1998 at an event in New York City. By then the Tampa-born outfielder and third baseman had played in several All Star games and had helped lead the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship.

"I had no idea who he was," Sheffield said.

They married in 1999, surviving a tabloid frenzy a few years later when a Chicago man tried to extort $20,000 from the couple by claiming he had a sex tape of DeLeon, who had been single at the time, in a menage a trois. She denied the lurid account and the man was later convicted of extortion and wire fraud.

For a decade, the Sheffields moved around as his baseball career took them to Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Detroit and New York again as their family grew to include three sons.

"Around 2009, we came back here (to Tampa)," she said. "It was near the end of his career, my kids were getting a little older and we needed to get settled."

With the bay area housing market in free fall, Sheffield decided it would be a good time to become a real estate agent and try her hand at flipping foreclosures. She talked her mother, Deborah Richards, into moving from Chicago and getting a Florida broker’s license. Together they started the DeLeon Sheffield Company.

Not surprisingly, the firm wound up dealing with high-profile clients, especially professional athletes. Among the players for whom it helped find homes are Robert Ayers, Chris Baker and Ryan Fitzpatrick, all of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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"We also offer concierge services," Sheffield said. "A lot of the guys that come for (baseball) spring training, I find them a place. If it needs furnishing, we get furniture. If they need groceries we get groceries."

Partly because of who her husband is, she acknowledged, "there’s a certain amount of trust the guys give me."

While building her real estate business, Sheffield continued to sing and write music. She tried to drum up interest in a reality show based around that.

"We had talked to a couple of networks but all the conversations started to focus on the fact I had this real estate company and do business with my mother," Sheffield said. "HGTV actually wanted to do a pilot. I was not up for the idea but it kept coming up. Finally, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is something that is supposed to be part of my plan.’"

Sheffield decided to work with FYI, a cable and satellite channel whose parent company, A&E Networks, is partly owned by the Walt Disney Company.

"I felt really, really comfortable with FYI," she said. "I felt they were really going to have good family programming and were not going to exploit my family."

As African-Americans, the telegenic Sheffields bring a different look to the multitude of real estate shows largely populated by white people. But despite six sales over $1 million, Sheffield remains a small player in Tampa Bay’s real estate market, according to the Multiple Listing Service. Her total volume of sales over the last four years is only about $18 million, ranking her 856th among agents on just the Tampa side of the bay.

Last year, a TV producer sent several top-selling local agents an email saying she was casting for a show that would feature Sheffield’s company as "the main real estate talent." However, the producer added, she was looking for two things:

• "Elite" agents willing to let camera crews film their high-end listings

• Clients who had recently bought expensive properties from those agents and who "would like to be on TV and recreate their house-hunting experience."

Not everyone responded favorably.

"We did have a few companies that sent emails out and told their agents not to work with us, that we were their competition," Sheffield said. "I was a little taken aback about that because there is so much out there for everybody."

St. Petersburg Agent Bonnie Strickland, whose Strickland Property Group has had more than $370 million in sales since 2013, calls Sheffield a "really nice person" but said she decided not to participate in the show.

"They could not guarantee when (the episodes) would air and the properties could be sold or off the market by then," Strickland said. "It could come off as a little misleading."

Tampa agent Jennifer Zales, who individually has notched more than $170 million in sales since 2013, said she too was contacted but declined.

"I did not think the format of the show would benefit my buyers or sellers," she said.

In June 2016, filming began on 15 half-hour episodes of Sheffield Real Estate, which began running Nov. 30.

The premise of the show: Sheffield juggles life with three kids and her "baseball legend husband" while she and Richards sell luxury homes in "one of the fastest growing real estate markets in the country." Gary Sheffield, 49, appears early in the first episode, asking his sons what they would want in a house.

"Hot ladies!"says 9-year-old Christian.

Sheffield and her mother then help Racener, a professional poker player, and his girlfriend look for a house. He rejects the first place, partly because he feels Richards is "kinda pushy, real pushy." But after Gary Sheffield calms him down over a game of golf, he agrees to see two more houses. He seems positively giddy about the third, and also familiar with its layout.

For good reason — property appraiser records show Racener already had bought the house in 2010.

Sheffield acknowledged that Racener is a friend of her husband and agreed to go along with the pretext because of TV production pressures.

"In order to do any show, they have a certain amount of time to tape or film it and we knew a deal could take two months so we had to recreate the process and get people willing to cooperate," she said. "I have clients but either they didn’t have the time or it didn’t work out for them. All the people selected for the show could afford what they were looking at."

In the second episode, a young couple, both musicians, swoon over a Spanish-style home in Tampa’s Beach Park after touring two other houses. At show’s end, the wife announces: "We decided to go with house No. 3. This house really has everything we need."

In fact, they did not go with the house — another couple bought it.

The Tampa agent who listed the house, Brandon Rimes, is featured in the episode. He wasn’t surprised to learn that the young couple were "staged buyers," as he put it.

"That’s the way a lot of these shows are. They’re doing it to make it seem more appealing to a television audience," Rimes said. "I’ve been involved with some other pilots that didn’t go anywhere and I looked at it as an opportunity to be seen nationwide."

Sheffield and her mother were "really cool" to work with, he added, and invited him and other Realtors to the family’s Harbour Island home for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

Sheffield hopes more agents will take part in future episodes.

After the initial rejections, "I went back to the network and said, ‘How can we make this work where everyone involved can benefit?’" Sheffield said. As a result, there will be more scenes with agents like Rimes identifying themselves and their companies.

The show, which airs at 10 p.m. Thursday on FYI and 10 a.m. Saturday on A&E, is being promoted through social media, syndicated radio programs and small signs at busy Tampa intersections.

The initial ratings, especially on the more widely available A&E, "were relatively good," Sheffield said. "They were excited about how the numbers looked."

Among the most avid watchers may be Christian, Noah, 11, and Jaden, 15.

When the episodes finally aired, "the boys were so excited," Sheffield said. "We Facebooked live pretty much through the whole thing."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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