Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

Romano: Tampa Bay could learn from Miami's stadium fiasco

They should be counting their blessings, and financial windfalls, in Miami this weekend.

Major League Baseball's All-Star Game will be played at Marlins Park on Tuesday, a precious perk doled out in return for building the $639 million stadium and parking complex that opened in 2012.

Instead, there's a good chance the cheering will be drowned out by grumbling.

Already unhappy with the amount of public money spent on the stadium, plenty of people in South Florida are even angrier now that Marlins owner Jeff Loria is selling the team for as much as $1.2 billion.

The gist of their complaint is that taxpayers footed most of the bill for the stadium, and now Loria stands to make a huge profit after buying the Marlins for $158 million in 2002.

Factoring in the team's $400 million in debt and the normal appreciation of a big league franchise, Loria's profit margin isn't quite that dramatic, but I get it if people aren't in a benefit-of-the-doubt mood.

That's why I have this suggestion for Tampa Bay's stadium pursuit: Make yourself a partner with Rays owner Stu Sternberg.

If there is public money to be spent on a new baseball stadium in Tampa Bay, there should be a provision requiring a percentage of profits be split with local governments if the team is sold.

The idea is somewhat rare, but not exactly radical. The Minnesota Vikings, who opened a new stadium in 2016, would have to forfeit 25 percent of any sale profits if the team is sold before 2022. The percentage decreases in subsequent years before disappearing in 2032.

The Marlins have a similar provision, but it doesn't appear to have much teeth in it. Loria can subtract debt, closing costs and taxes from the equation, and he only owes 5 percent of his profit. The provision also expires in March — six years after the stadium opened — which may explain the sale's slow pace.

Still, I think the idea has merit in Tampa Bay for two reasons.

1. Sternberg has repeatedly said that it is his intention to keep the Rays in his family's control for the foreseeable future. If that's his plan, then this deal costs him nothing. It would obviously require a sunset at some point, but that's a negotiable detail.

2. Despite turning the franchise's fortunes around after taking control of the Rays in 2005, Sternberg is still viewed by many as a Wall Street carpetbagger. This provision would give critics a measure of comfort since Sternberg couldn't cut-and-run without a penalty.

Perhaps you think stadium financing plans are premature considering we haven't even figured out on which side of the bay a new stadium might be built, but I would guess the chances are pretty good that the Rays will have settled on a location in Tampa by the end of December.

And, as protracted as the search for a site has been, the financing of a stadium is bound to be even more contentious. That is why it's important to approach it as a partnership.

Along with the sale clause, there are other ways to ensure both the franchise and the community have a stake in the success of a stadium.

For instance, in return for a larger investment from Sternberg, the community could guarantee the team will be within a certain percentage of Major League Baseball's average attendance. If attendance continues to underperform, then Sternberg would be due a refund on his investment.

Conversely, if the team has too many seasons under MLB's average payroll, then Sternberg could be required to pony up a penalty fee.

And since Sternberg has never expressed much interest in expanding his business interests beyond baseball, it might be possible to negotiate a deal that would give a city or county control of a stadium during the five-month off-season.

The basic idea is that it would be in the best interests of both the Rays and the community for a stadium to succeed. A one-sided deal, or a misplaced location or a contentious relationship will only increase the odds of failure.

And if history has taught us anything, it's that both the stadium and the team need to be operating at peak efficiency for big league baseball to work in this market.

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