TAMPA — Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, angling for a new stadium, said Thursday he wants to keep his team in the region, but "Major League Baseball at this point no longer believes in the Tampa Bay area.''
Five years of winning baseball, coupled with poor attendance, have taken a toll on his fellow owners, Sternberg said. Even with a healthy media market, the Rays still drain tens of millions of dollars a year from baseball's revenue-sharing pot.
"That gap is growing,'' Sternberg told the Hillsborough County Commission. "Put yourself in their place. They look at the success, we have an exciting team, and then they see where the gate is. They don't care whether it's Clearwater, St. Petersburg or Tampa. They just know this as Tampa Bay.''
Sternberg would not speculate about what action baseball officials might take, or when. He did soften his statements at times, suggesting that a new stadium in the right location could keep the team in Tampa Bay.
His underlying message — that time is running short — struck a chord.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan contends that the team's stadium standoff with St. Petersburg jeopardizes baseball for the entire region. He invited the Rays to discuss their future Thursday despite a warning from St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster that the city might sue Hillsborough for meddling.
Tropicana Field "is not a sustainable long-term option,'' Hagan reiterated Thursday. "It's not a matter of whether the Rays ultimately relocate but when and where. To simply put our heads in the sand and take the position that the issue will mysteriously resolve is short-sighted.''
Apprised of these comments, Foster took a conciliatory tack. He praised commissioners for restraint because they didn't discuss specific stadium locations. He also praised Sternberg for candor, saying the Rays' owner privately told him about baseball's disenchantment with the entire region — and not just St. Petersburg — two years ago.
"That's why I have taken the position" of not letting the Rays look for stadium sites outside the city, Foster said. The Trop contract, which runs through 2027, binds the team to the entire region, he said.
In response to inquiries, Major League Baseball released a statement Thursday praising the Rays for success on the field and contributions to the community. Commissioner Bud Selig "is disappointed with the current situation in Tampa Bay,'' the statement said. "The status quo is simply not sustainable.''
Thursday's one-hour presentation was the team's first wide-ranging, public stadium discussion since June 2010, when Sternberg announced that he needed to explore stadium options outside of St. Petersburg. He would not say Thursday whether he prefers a downtown Tampa location, as many observers believe.
But fellow owners "will be looking to me to explain to them just why this market can work,'' he said. "They believe we need to be pitch perfect in getting it right the next time around.''
Team officials said about one-third of fans — including ticket buyers and television watchers — live in Hillsborough County and about one-quarter live in Pinellas. The balance comes mostly from five surrounding counties.
Only 600,000 people live within a 30 minute drive of the Trop, lowest among all major league teams and lower than eight minor league teams.
"We have some of the best fans in baseball, and we understand the impact of the economy for the last five years,'' said Michael Kalt, senior vice president for development and business affairs. "But when you strip all that away, we have a fundamental issue with the location in a market that is already challenging'' because of demographics and disposable income.
The failure of a proposed waterfront stadium in 2008 and ensuing poor attendance was "extremely deflating,'' Sternberg said. The Rays planned to "rebrand" and drop "Devil" from the team name. They had promising young players in the pipeline and figured attendance would improve with winning.
"You couldn't ask for more to get this new stadium built, but it really fell on deaf ears,'' he said. "We thought: What are we going to do now? We were winning games, and it was crickets out there as far as business leaders and others. I was quite shocked and taken aback.''
When then-Mayor Rick Baker set up a group of civic leaders to study stadium options, it angered city officials by recommending West Shore and downtown Tampa as possible locations, along with St. Petersburg's Gateway area.
"It was really shocking to me, so see the level and differences of provincial beliefs,'' Sternberg said. "A regional approach is so important . . . and a body of water should not be the defining point.''
In retrospect, he said, the team dodged a bullet by not building on the waterfront. Attendance that continued to drop for five years reinforced the need for a more central location.
By comparison, Kalt noted that both the Rays and Texas Rangers were near the league bottom in attendance until they both went on a five-year winning streak. Last year, the Rangers finished third in attendance.
Though Sternberg would not set any timetables, he did speak of longer, personal time horizons than he had in previous public statements.
"In 2027, I expect to be doing this. I expect my kids to be doing this, because baseball is going to be here another 7, 8 or 12 years.''
He worries, though, that his intentions won't carry the day with his colleagues if the team starts losing again and attendance drops further. "I will have an enormous amount of say about it,'' he said, "but there comes a point where the numbers just would not work out.''
Without offering any specifics, Commissioner Mark Sharpe promised that the commission would work with the Rays.
"Your cries are not falling on deaf ears,'' Sharpe said. "We know you put money and time and great risk into this project and we are not going to fail you.''
The Rays will continue their public discussions Tuesday at the Pinellas County Commission.
Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.