ST. PETERSBURG — Season ticket sales are below expectations. Corporate support remains among the worst in Major League Baseball.
But Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said Friday he still expects a boost in attendance this year.
"We should be up a good amount this year," Sternberg said during pre-game batting practice at Tropicana Field. "We'll have a good amount more people at the gate."
Whether better attendance can mend relations between Sternberg and St. Petersburg city leaders is unclear. Sternberg announced two years ago that he wanted to explore new stadium options outside of Pinellas County. City officials reminded that the team was tied to Tropicana Field through the 2027 season and the city could sue any third party that interferes with that contract.
Sternberg and city officials have talked sparingly since then. In January, he and Mayor Bill Foster met for two hours. Afterward, Sternberg said the same thing: He foresees "a nice improvement'' in attendance for 2012.
He's spoken with Foster a few times by phone since then, but Sternberg still describes relations with St. Petersburg as lukewarm.
"It's cordial," he said again Friday. "It could be better. It could be worse."
Meanwhile, he said he's encouraged by suitors from Tampa and Hillsborough County who say they'd support a stadium on that side of the bay, as well as by efforts from regional business interests to support the club.
"I think the ball is rolling," he said. "The nice thing is that it's not static, it's not moving backwards and you've got both sides of the bay — business people —involved."
Business people, he suggested, were the ones who would extract him from his current standoff with St. Petersburg's elected officials.
"You know, the political people, they come, they go. I'm into my second mayor now."
Sprinkled throughout Sternberg's opening day pep talk were traces of pessimism.
Asked about season tickets sales for this season, Sternberg said he's seen only a slight uptick. "They're not enough to get us to where we need to be," he said. "But we'll have 90,000 in the building in the next three days. If we can play some good baseball, maybe we can get some traction out of that."
He sounded wistful talking about the Miami Marlins stadium, debuting this season. The public paid for about three-quarters of its $640 million cost.
"I'm envious of every new stadium," Sternberg said. "I like my stadium. I love the place. I'd challenge anyone, and we have, to come in and say it's not a great experience. It's not an ideal experience. Something is keeping people from coming in."
He repeated that Major League Baseball officials are concerned with Rays attendance.
"The M.O. in our sport and all others is that winning cures the ills," he said. "We're in brave new ground where winning hasn't cured the ills so to speak."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]