Friday, May 25, 2018
Perspective

The view of the Trop from 1995

ST. PETERSBURG

Over the last five years, the Tampa Bay Rays have run up Major League Baseball's third-best record while drawing the third-fewest fans.

Miserable attendance stems from many roots, most of which were poorly understood on April 27, 1995, when the City Council approved its first stadium contract with the team.

Back then, no one raised questions about a service economy with meager disposable incomes, a weak corporate base, persistent parochialism or a region that lacks a true center and effective mass transit.

But the stadium itself — as unadorned and funky and 1970-ish as a leisure suit — was a different matter. Its shortcomings were foreshadowed right from the beginning.

It happened at that April council meeting, as team officials explained why the city should receive a minimal revenue split under the proposed contract.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has now recycled that exchange as one reason the Rays should stay in town.

Here's the jaunt down memory lane:

(As background, Vince Naimoli then owned the Rays. John Higgins, then as now, was general counsel. Tropicana Field was called the ThunderDome. The Colorado Rockies were playing their first season at Coors Field. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who entered the league with the Rays, would play at Bank One Ballpark. Coors and Bank One were both new stadiums, designed for baseball. The 5-year-old ThunderDome was designed more along round, 1970s, multipurpose lines.)

City Council member Robert Kersteen says he had just read that the Rockies had agreed to pay Denver 5 percent of luxury and club seat revenue, all the parking fees, as much as $1.50 a ticket and $550,000 a year toward maintenance. The Rays would pay St. Petersburg 50 cents a ticket and a share of naming rights.

John Higgins:

"I have heard a lot of talk about the leases of Coors Field. I have heard a lot of talk about the lease in Phoenix. And I know, quite candidly, that the ThunderDome is not, and never will be, Coors Field or the Bank One Ballpark.

"Mr. Naimoli said the other day, when he and I were talking, it's sometimes the difference between a Chevrolet and a Cadillac. The revenue streams that will be obtained by the baseball franchises in Colorado and in Phoenix are going to be different that what we are going to get because of the facility.

"If we didn't have the Dome, we might not have the team, but if we didn't have the Dome and we somehow got the team, the lease might have been different because our financial revenues from the facility might have been different.''

In a letter last month to current Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, Foster enumerates why the team should not seek a new stadium in Tampa. Among his arguments:

"The potential for attendance challenges was foreseeable in 1995, and discussed at length during negotiations, and thus, the city bargained away some of its interests in exchange for a 30-year agreement.''

Translation: Don't complain about stadium flaws. You knew about them going in.

Certainly, the Trop's shortcomings contributed to the Rays' attendance malaise, but they are by no means the main culprit. The entire Tampa Bay region is simply a decent TV market with lackluster attendance potential that falls considerably below generic Chevrolet blah.

The Rays had an average attendance of 19,255 this year while winning 90 games and contending for the pennant for the fifth straight year.

Arizona won 81 games and drew 26,881.

Colorado won 64 and drew 32,474.

Had Higgins known in 1995 what everyone knows now about the region, he might have been more specific: 10-year-old Citation, 150,000 miles, two bald tires and a leaky transmission.

This is not an argument for a new stadium, much less one financed by a passel of tax money. Naimoli signed a contract, and Sternberg inherited it.

But we are probably stuck with stadium conversations for another decade. So let's keep the Trop and its flaws in proper perspective.

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