In a shaky market, baseball stadium location needs to be 'pitch perfect'

Greedy shysters.

This is what some people see in the Miami baseball stadium saga.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria trades away his highest-paid players a year after moving into a new taxpayer-funded stadium, and it's tempting to conclude baseball owners should never be trusted when it comes to money.

Pathetic fans.

This is how others interpret what's going on in Miami.

A franchise draws nearly 300,000 fans below the Major League Baseball average after moving into a gorgeous new stadium with a dugout full of expensive free agents, and it's easy to wonder if Florida is incapable of supporting a big-league team.

A cautionary tale.

This is how Stu Sternberg views the latest developments in Miami.

The Rays owner does not use those exact words. He doesn't even mention the owner, the franchise or the market by name. But reading between the lines is not terribly difficult.

"It is clear to us, especially when we look around at some other situations, that we have to end up in the perfect spot," Sternberg said. "We need to be pitch perfect."

The subtle insinuation?

The Marlins may have messed up.

After all the ownership changes, political squabbles, World Series titles, fire sales and the $515 million ballpark bill with $130 million more worth of infrastructure, there is reason to question whether the stadium was built in the right location.

The precise details of Miami's geography are not important around here. The point is that a very expensive building might have been built in a less-than-ideal spot.

And that is the crux of the stadium argument in Tampa Bay.

By now, everyone knows this is not a terrific sports market. That is neither insult nor criticism. It is simply reality based on the numbers.

For baseball to work long term in Tampa Bay, revenues are going to have to increase. And a large part of that equation is getting attendance near Major League Baseball's average. The Rays were nearly 40 percent below the big-league average in 2012.

"If somebody told me at this time last year that we would win 90 games and finish last in the league in attendance, I would have said, "No way.' I wouldn't have believed that," Sternberg said. "That was pretty deflating."

A new stadium anywhere in Tampa Bay would almost certainly be an improvement over where the Rays are now. The key is how much the needle moves.

Drawing a few thousand extra fans per night when you've spent $600 million on a ballpark is not anyone's idea of a sound investment. For this to work, the Rays need 2 million fans, win or lose. In a pennant race, they should be closer to 3 million.

And this is why Sternberg is insistent on including Hillsborough County in any discussions about a new stadium. And it's why the Carillon project has not been embraced.

Understand, this is not an argument to actually build a stadium. The price tag is too large and our needs are too plentiful to simply rubber-stamp any stadium proposal that comes along.

But if, as a market, we decide a big-league team is worth the investment, we cannot afford to be wrong about a ballpark's ZIP code.

We're only going to get one shot at this.

Mess it up, and we'll regret it for decades.

In a shaky market, baseball stadium location needs to be 'pitch perfect' 11/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 8:27pm]

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