Thursday, January 18, 2018
Business

Trigaux: Owners of Bucs, Rays, Lightning want to be loved — but mostly want to win

Three blue blazered owners of the major Tampa Bay sports teams walk into a bar…

That could be the start of a joke given the hearty laughs and accolades that Bucs owner Bryan Glazer, Rays owner Stu Sternberg and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik received during a rare panel conversation by the trio on the business of professional sports. They spoke before a packed room of the nation's top sports editors and local fans held Monday night at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg.

The biggest message of all three owners? Good seasons and bad seasons happen. Taxpayer money for improved stadiums and arenas may be called for on occasion. But each team wants to be a long-term contributor to improving the Tampa Bay community.

And, of course, added Sternberg: "We all want to win."

Plenty of insights into the challenge of sports ownership were shared. They ranged from the priority of boosting game attendance in an era of high-def TV and the competitive options for people's entertainment dollars to convincing a tax-wary public that financing next-generation sports stadiums without public funds is simply too expensive. Each sport faces its own home attendance demons, with the Rays confronted with the greatest task of luring fans to 81 home games. The Lightning play 41 home games and the Bucs just eight in the regular season.

RELATED: More from the rare public appearance of all three owners of Tampa Bay's top professional sports teams

Glazer, wrapping up his 21st season with the Bucs, spoke as a co-chair of an NFL franchise that recently fired its head coach and endured a division last-place 6-10 record in 2015. The team also finds itself at times defending the pick of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston who, while cleared of a rape allegation stemming from a 2012 incident at Florida State, still faces public scrutiny. Glazer, speaking generally, said the Bucs get the "best intelligence" it can on all its players before deciding to bring them aboard.

"I stand behind our players 100 percent," Glazer told the audience at Poynter, which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

The Bucs franchise, according to a Forbes analysis last year, soared in value by 23 percent and was worth $1.51 billion. That makes the Bucs by far Tampa Bay's most valuable pro sports team, even though that estimate was below the NFL's average franchise value of $1.97 billion.

Sternberg, now in his 11th year as principal owner of the Rays, said one reason he bought the struggling baseball team (for $200 million) was that "we could try some crazy stuff. We had nowhere to go but up." The opportunities for innovation and using the team as an incubator of new ideas were compelling, he said.

He repeated the Rays promise of remaining a competitive though small market team in an American League East division full of big-dollar franchises. He suggested his Cinderella Rays will keep working its magic and try to avoid "turning into a pumpkin." Forbes estimated the Rays franchise value last spring at $625 million.

Sternberg attributed weak game attendance to the mix of an aging Tropicana Field or its location. Now the franchise has permission to look in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for another potential site for a new stadium. He said the Rays are very frugal with public funds, insisting that a new stadium can't be built without some portion of taxpayer money. In exchange, the public not only gains a pro sports franchise to enjoy but the regional economic clout that comes with a metro that is home to major sports teams.

Vinik, whose National Hockey League franchise was valued by Forbes last fall at $260 million, latched on to Sternberg's comments. The Lightning owner is leading a $2 billion real estate project around Amalie Arena in Tampa and spends a lot of time on the road trying to lure an out-of-state corporate headquarters to anchor his development.

His constant pitching of Tampa Bay's virtues, Vinik said, has made him "Cheerleader In Chief" for the Tampa Bay area. He said companies tell him that keeping a major league baseball team in the Tampa Bay market is critical to recruiting businesses here.

In the last year, Vinik said, Tampa Bay has created the most jobs of any metro area in Florida. "If we can do that again in the next 12 months, our message about how great this area is may be resonating."

If that happens, everybody scores.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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