ST. PETERSBURG — The question is no longer whether Tropicana Field is a viable stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he came away from a much-anticipated meeting with team officials with a more fundamental question.
"They, the Rays organization, have a question about the ability of the region to support baseball," Foster told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "It wasn't a question of St. Petersburg or Tampa."
Foster recapped his impressions from a two-hour meeting Tuesday with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg at Tropicana Field.
"That was the most striking thing about this conversation," Foster said. "Tropicana Field, and whatever its deficiencies, never came up."
The two men were joined by Jim Kennedy, a City Council member; Rick Mussett, the city's senior administrator of development; Matt Silverman, Rays president; and Michael Kalt, the Rays senior vice president of development and business affairs.
The meeting was highly anticipated after talks between Foster and Sternberg stalled after a June 2010 news conference in which Sternberg said he wanted to look elsewhere for stadium sites, including Hillsborough County. Foster has refused to let the club look outside Pinellas.
Since then, Tropicana Field, where the Rays are contractually obligated to play through the 2027 season, has emerged as a dominant point of contention. Its amenities, location and slack attendance have been scrutinized in newspapers, blogs, sports radio and on ESPN.
Just last summer, a Rays official said the 22-year-old stadium had become a distraction.
"Clearly, something needs to be done," Silverman, the Rays president, said then.
But Foster said he left Tuesday thinking a much larger issue was at play.
"There are huge questions about Tampa Bay's ability to support three professional sports franchises," Foster said later on WQYK-AM 1010. "That was a point that was made when I left there.
"I thought, 'Wow,' " Foster said. "This is Tampa Bay fighting for major league baseball. It's not so much that we'll have them through 2027. It's the next 30 years that I think we need to be concerned about."
Foster said the best immediate strategy for keeping the team is fan support.
"If the region wants the Rays to stay in the region, then Tampa Bay needs to support this team this year by putting their backsides in the seat and going to the game," Foster said.
To do that, the two sides discussed how to better market the team.
It's a sensitive issue. Last year, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said that Foster told her that he believed the Rays had purposely sandbagged their marketing efforts to depress attendance. Foster denied making that statement. But on Tuesday, Sternberg said he "had to defend'' the Rays' marketing efforts during his meeting with the mayor, but quickly added that Foster thought the club was doing a fine job marketing.
On Wednesday, Foster said he was "absolutely satisfied" with the Rays' marketing efforts.
Rays officials said Wednesday they had no comment beyond Sternberg's remarks the day before.
Foster said that the city will help market the team, and later, onWQYK, said that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also agreed to help.
Buckhorn is "willing to get involved in promoting this baseball team as a great regional asset in its present location for this season," Foster said. "You'll see touches from the mayors on both sides of the bay to really get support for this team."
Long-term, Foster said a plan to bring light rail to Pinellas and connect with a system in Hillsborough is crucial to making it easier for fans to attend.
Echoing the comments Sternberg made Tuesday minutes after the meeting ended, Foster said much of the discussion focused on better communication.
"We're back on track as far as open lines of communication," he said. "The tone was positive."
But the larger issue remains. Foster said his offer remains unchanged: a new stadium in Pinellas, or nothing. But he did come away with a deeper understanding.
"When (Sternberg) says he wants to look everywhere (for a new stadium), he means it," Foster said on WQYK. "It's not just Tampa Bay. . . . I don't think they see Hillsborough County as the answer."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]