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History suggests Rays won't move

ST. PETERSBURG — The doomsday scenario for Tampa Bay Rays fans is that the team becomes so frustrated with Tropicana Field that it packs its bats and gloves and heads up I-75 toward Charlotte, N.C., or San Antonio, Texas.

Even owner Stuart Sternberg has dropped dark hints that other markets would welcome the Rays if Tampa Bay area officials don't underwrite a new stadium.

But how likely is it, really, that another city can woo the team away anytime soon?

Not very, if history is any guide.

Twenty teams have secured new stadiums since 1988, when the Chicago White Sox used St. Petersburg as a stalking horse to extract a sweetheart deal from Illinois.

In every city, voters gripe about using tax money. But mayors, legislators and county officials eventually find a way to get the deal done — mostly at public expense.

Except for one anomaly, no baseball team has moved in 38 years.

The modern stadium

The White Sox's new ballpark in Chicago's South Side ushered in the modern stadium era, but it was Baltimore's Camden Yards that lit the fuse.

The Orioles had languished in Memorial Stadium, an aging venue designed for baseball and football. The lease was ending and Maryland politicians were worried. Baltimore had recently lost its football team to Indianapolis and basketball team to Washington, D.C.

So legislators agreed to use lottery money for a new stadium, designed for baseball, with stands close to the action and open concourses where fans could stroll around, buy beer and barbecue and still watch the game. Ticket prices jumped, attendance soared and corporate bigwigs flocked to luxury boxes.

Eighteen more stadiums followed, representing $7.5 billion in new investment, with two factors paving the way.

First, leases were expiring on combined baseball-football stadiums. These stadiums were 20 to 30 years old and not ideally suited for either sport.

And teams could point to seemingly attractive suitors if hometown cities played hardball.

Miami, the Tampa Bay area, Denver and Phoenix were virgin territory before baseball awarded them expansion franchises in the 1990s. No less than five teams threatened to move to the Tampa Bay area.

St. Petersburg "should send a bill to the Mariners, White Sox and Giants for the leverage they gave to build nice buildings,'' says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan.

The Miami example

The Florida Marlins, who began play five years ahead of the Rays, are pathfinders for the Tampa Bay market in more ways in one.

They share a potent statewide media market. Both have languished in attendance despite success on the field. And both say they cannot compete without new stadiums and the revenues they provide.

The Marlins play in Sun Life Stadium, a football venue. It's hot, open to summer thunderstorms and some upper-deck seats are so bad that World Series ticket holders missed action on the field.

The team lobbied for a new stadium for more than a decade, and public officials lurched. In 2003, the county approved funding, but the city declined. Two years later, the city and county agreed, but the Legislature balked.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig delivered a typical double-edged message:

"We love South Florida and I'm hopeful they'll get a new stadium,'' he told reporters. "There is certainly no keeping them there without one.''

But that was 2005, and the options had shrunk.

Other than Washington, D.C., which was part of Baltimore's designated territory, markets like Portland, San Antonio, Charlotte and Las Vegas were smaller than the Denvers and Phoenixes of the 1990s.

The Marlins, who essentially had no lease, made not-so-secret rounds of those smaller markets, and elicited a $300-million offer from San Antonio. But they ultimately hung with Miami through four more years of debate.

Miami officials never worried much about the team moving, says county manager George Burgess. "It did not drive our thinking.''

Rather, having a new, retractable-roof stadium close to downtown and financed largely by hotel taxes "was a good addition to the amenities in our community,'' he says. "It's no different than the performing arts center we are proud of.''

The payoff: a $645 million stadium under construction where the Orange Bowl used to stand.

Protracted negotiations carried a cost to taxpayers. The 2003 package approved by the county but nixed by the city was more than $200 million cheaper.

The usual suspects

Rays owner Sternberg recently said that five cities without baseball are better markets than Tampa Bay. He doesn't name them, but identifies them only as "the usual suspects.''

If Portland, San Antonio, Charlotte, Las Vegas and another city are so attractive, they didn't lure the Marlins.

They haven't lured the Oakland Athletics, who routinely trail in attendance and play in another of the last multipurpose stadiums.

They didn't lure the Twins from Minnesota, which was supposedly such a bad baseball market and had such a bad stadium that baseball threatened to eliminate the Twins in 2002. Instead, the team stuck it out and is now playing its first season at glistening Target Field.

Nielsen Media Research lists Tampa-St. Petersburg as the ninth-best cable market in the country, which is a big plus for the Rays, says Dennis Coates, a sports economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"If you don't have a big local broadcast market, you are not going to get anywhere,'' Coates says. "Portland doesn't. Las Vegas doesn't. San Antonio is cheek-to-jowl with Houston. I don't see how easy it would be for them to wrest a team away.''

Marc Rosentraub, a University of Michigan economist, is no fan of Tropicana Field. It was designed at the end of the multipurpose era, sat empty for a decade and then original owner Vince Naimoli signed a 30-year lease, even though the stadium was already "economically obsolete,'' he says.

In modern baseball stadiums, half of gross revenues usually come from premium seats close to the action, luxury boxes and amenities that the Trop can't offer, he says.

"The Rays find themselves in a situation where most of their competitors can offer that luxury experience and they can't.''

But Rosentraub, who consulted with the city of San Diego when it built a new stadium in 2004, pooh-poohs the notion that better markets are just waiting to snatch up the Rays.

Greater New York could support a third team, he says, but the Yankees and Mets would block such a move. Other cities are too small.

"There are no markets left,'' Rosentraub says. "No place they can move to would be any different.''

Move, counter-move

Since 1972, when the Washington Senators left for Texas, only one baseball team has moved: the odd case of the Montreal Expos.

A players' strike canceled the team's best season in 1994. Fans and ownership came to bitter loggerheads. Average attendance fell to less than 10,000.

Major League Baseball reportedly bought the Expos in 2002 for $120 million. Selig then pressured the Baltimore Orioles to cede exclusive rights to the metropolitan Washington market. Public officials ponied up a $611 million stadium and baseball resold the team for $450 million.

Other than that instance, where the league profited, individual team owners are urged to work things out with existing cities or to sell to someone who will.

The commissioner typically issues statements that a team can't stay in a mediocre stadium forever, but pulling the trigger on a move can be traumatic. Lawsuits follow, with hometown judges at the helm. Congressional representatives challenge baseball's limited antitrust exemption.

The San Francisco Giants, for example, tried for years to ditch windy Candlestick Park, another aging football stadium. Voters refused three times to commit tax money and then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent announced that owner Bob Lurie could shop the team to interlopers from other cities.

Who should pop up but a Tampa industrialist?

In 1992, jubilant St. Petersburg officials announced Vince Naimoli had bought the Giants and would move them to its then-empty dome. Then, National League president Bill White vetoed the sale and rounded up a new local owner for San Francisco.

After that, further threats to leave San Francisco lost all credibility. When its new stadium opened in 2000, the city installed infrastructure that enhanced surrounding waterfront land owned by the Giants. But the team footed almost the entire $325 million construction cost.

Who pays

Critics of the Rays' desire to leave the Trop often cite the Giants' deal and others as proof that taxpayers need not underwrite new stadiums. The Yankees and Mets largely financed their new stadiums. So did the St. Louis Cardinals.

Why not the Rays?

Modern stadium deals, taken as a whole, show why economics make that difficult for midmarket teams.

Teams in big cities can rest easy that huge revenues from new stadiums will remain in place over its lifetime. Small- or midmarket teams like the Rays face less revenue and more uncertainty. Studies of honeymoon periods indicate that stadium novelty tails off in three to eight years.

At best, teams like the Rays might expect a $25 million to $40 million revenue boost from a new stadium, some economists estimate, and part of that must be shared with other teams.

On the cost side, yearly bond payments on a $600 million stadium would run $35 million to $50 million, canceling out revenue gains. And bonds must be repaid, even if there is another recession and fans stay home.

For a midmarket team, paying the whole construction bill is all risk and no gain.

These bottom-line dynamics are borne out by other stadium projects. The Marlins and Twins paid about one-fourth of their stadiums' cost. Even in a market like Philadelphia, the Phillies paid only half the construction bill.

It's not that the Rays will leave town next year without a new stadium or even next decade. But consigning the team to the Trop through 2027 will send the Rays down the same track as the Marlins and Athletics, says Rosentraub, the economist. Good years will be followed by player sell-offs and deep plunges in performance.

Sternberg's business model calls for higher revenues and higher salaries, says Rosentraub.

"I'm not saying subsidize the hell out of'' a new stadium, he says, but "you have an owner who wants to win. If you have an unhappy tenant, you are not going to have an experience you will like.''

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

The 'usual suspects'

Here is how the Tampa Bay area stacks up demographically against a few cities without baseball.

Population (2009)Growth (2000-09)Cable TV

market rank
Tampa Bay area2,747,272*14.27 percent9
Portland, Ore./

Vancouver, Wash.
San Antonio, Texas2,072,12820.5239
Las Vegas/ Paradise1,902,83436.5640
Charlotte, N.C./Gastonia1,745,52430.2224
* 3.4 million including Sarasota/Bradenton

Sources: U.S. Census, Nielsen Media Research

History suggests Rays won't move 08/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 11:29am]
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