For the past six years, the Tampa Bay Rays received six-figure grants from Pinellas County hotel tax revenues set aside to help out high-profile sports events.
But on Wednesday, a panel of the county's Tourist Development Council turned down the team's request for a $250,000 "elite event" grant.
Members said that the Rays deal was more of an advertising buy than support for annual events such as the Outback Bowl, the Honda Grand Prix or the Transitions PGA golf tournament.
The Rays offered an advertising package of Pinellas tourism promotions for the $250,000. It included 30-second TV commercials on 75 game broadcasts, "rotator signs" behind home plate, and the county's tourism website address on the home team dugout rail at Tropicana Field.
"The Rays are a very different animal," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who represents the city on the TDC. "The category is elite events. This is some form of national advertising deal."
Members also were bothered that the Rays didn't send a representative to Wednesday's meeting, where the panel recommended to the full TDC which applicants should receive grants next year.
"Why wouldn't (an applicant) be here?" asked Lloyd Williams, managing director of the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club. "Is it that there's an arrogance, or are we being taken for granted?"
A Rays representative would have appeared if someone had asked or recommended it, said team spokesman Rick Vaughn, but "no one did."
Pinellas tourism director D.T. Minich said all grant applicants knew about the meeting.
The Rays aren't shut out from tax money yet. They can compete with other media to sell advertising directly to the county's convention and visitors bureau. Or they can make their case to the full TDC or to the Pinellas County Commission, which has the final say on the bureau budget.
Without guidelines on evaluating proposals, panel members struggled with questions about how to dole out the grants. Should events that bring in more visitors receive more money? Or is national TV exposure to attract tourists later more important?
The biggest winner was the Honda Grand Prix ($250,000), followed by the Outback Bowl ($150,000), the Beef O'Brady's Bowl ($100,000) and the Transitions Championship ($100,000).
Contact Steve Huettel at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.