The Dead Deal Era: Tampa Bay Rays find few allies in Legislature

Published May 9 2017
Updated May 9 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Well into its search for a new ballpark, the Tampa Bay Rays are finding that the era of easy public money is over.

Not only is the Legislature opposed to using state money for stadiums and arenas, but lawmakers are increasingly hostile to using any type of public support — even if local taxpayers agree to it.

"Any sort of legislation that can prevent this sort of corporate welfare, I'm 100 percent supportive of it," said Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, who sponsored a House bill this year that would have prohibited sports teams from building or renovating stadiums on public land.

Cities and clubs feel hamstrung by the backlash.

"If they don't want to make state funding available to these sports teams that's their decision," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. "But don't tell me and my council what we can and can't do."

Yet, with state money a non-starter, it's becoming more and more apparent the next battle for conservatives lies in squashing local deals.

Lawmakers are no longer moved by pleas for public assistance of any kind, said Ron Book, who has lobbied for the Miami Dolphins since 1982.

"They have a different attitude up here and try to expect owners to do more than in the past," Book said. "It seems the days of these big deals are through."


If there was a golden age for publicly financed stadiums in Florida, it was the 1990s.

Between 1989 and 1999, governments in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando opened stadiums paid for with taxpayer dollars. Not to be left out, the Florida Legislature approved $2 million a year for three decades to professional sports complexes.

But with the turn of the millennium, sentiments shifted as state lawmakers repeatedly rebuked the then-Florida Marlins' push for a new ballpark.

The saga reached a climax in 2005 when executives for the Marlins made a big show of a trip to Las Vegas to pressure state lawmakers into forking over $60 million.

[SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said times have changed for sports stadiums. Lawmakers aren't as pressured to approve tax dollars for projects like they were in the 1990s, he said.

Republican Tom Lee, then the Senate President, responded: "I don't negotiate with terrorists."

Lee, back in the Senate again, said it was harder to resist back then.

"You had the biggest of the biggest lobbying firms pushing this stuff," said Lee, R-Thonotosassa. "If you didn't have that juice behind this legislation you wouldn't get to first base."

Rebuffed by state lawmakers, Marlins executives turned to Miami-Dade area officials and reached a pact for a new ballpark in 2009 that will ultimately cost local taxpayers $1 billion due to the high cost of borrowing.

Just seven years later, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is reportedly trying to sell the Marlins. He is expected to fetch upwards of $1 billion for the team, stadium included.


That 2009 pact, Avila said, is "by far the worst deal in the history of sports franchises," and was the turning point for many Florida lawmakers.

"The Marlins stadium is a perfect example," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "Taxpayers are being fleeced. It's a hard case to argue that billionaire owners need hundreds of millions of dollars in order to make their deals work."

Holdouts remain, including House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who said the public still supports subsidies.

Look, she said, at Hillsborough County. It failed to pass a sales tax referendum to pay for education and other priorities in the early 1990s. After it was tied to the promise of a new stadium to keep the Buccaneers in Tampa, residents voted to raise their own taxes.

"People like their sports and they like their sporting events," Cruz said. "And they're willing to support that."


Miami remained at the center of the state's debate.

In 2013, the Dolphins wanted $350 million in public funds to renovate their football stadium. Book, the Miami lobbyist, came to Tallahassee armed with all the familiar arguments.

It'll bring Super Bowls. It'll spur economic development. He even had Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino in Tallahassee as a pitch man.

But in one of the most chaotic ends to a session in recent memory, the House adjourned before voting on the bill.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross accused then House Speaker Will Weatherford of reneging on a pact to allow a vote. Weatherford became public enemy No. 1 among Dolphins fans.

"I try not to revisit history," Weatherford said this week. "Especially painful history."

[SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

Former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, pulled the plug on a 2013 deal where the Miami Dolphins would have received $350 million in public funds to renovate its stadium.

To avoid future dogfights, the Legislature created a new grant in 2014 for sports stadiums. Teams could apply for money and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the proposals based on return on investment.

But lawmakers have not voted to fund the program, despite receiving applications every year.

"I don't know if I could have predicted that," Weatherford said. When it comes to how lawmakers view stadium projects, he said, "There's no question there's less of an appetite than there was before."

Ross ultimately decided to pay for the improvements to the Dolphins stadium on his own.

To many lawmakers who were against the deal, Ross' decision to pay for the stadium himself emboldened them.

"We said 'no' and guess what? They built it anyway," said Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa. "That's what you typically find. They ask for the money, they don't get the money and they build the improvements anyway. They're just hoping they can get the state to front the bill."


Tampa Bay is not Miami and the Rays are not the Marlins or the Dolphins.

That's the message the team and its allies are sending to skeptical lawmakers.

"I have Miami exhaustion," said Kriseman, who hopes to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg at a new ballpark across from the site of Tropicana Field. "It feels like every bill that comes out of the Legislature lately is something that happened down in South Florida. The rest of us in the state that don't have the same issues and had good oversight, we all pay the penalty."

[WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Times]

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says state lawmakers should let cities and counties work on their own deals with professional sports teams.

One difference between the Rays and Miami: principal owner Stuart Sternberg's pockets aren't as deep as Ross, whose estimated net worth is over $7 billion. Sternberg is reportedly worth between $400 million and $800 million, though he owns the team with others.

But growing valuations of professional sports teams have lifted all boats, including the Rays. While last in Major League Baseball, the Rays value still increased to $825 million, according to the most recent Forbes estimates.

A spokeswoman for the Rays declined to comment. It's no secret the Rays struggle to fill Tropicana Field and the organization loses money, Sternberg has said. The team hopes a new ballpark, in the right location with local taxpayer support, can draw more fans.

But the Rays are finding fewer sympathetic lawmakers in the Capitol who can help.

[Tampa Bay Times]

The Tampa Bay Rays have struggled to fill Tropicana Field.

"Florida is a strong enough market where these billionaires should be self sufficient with their investments," Brandes said.

And if not, sell the team to someone who can?

Said Brandes: "That's correct."


With state funds out of the question, lawmakers are now moving to put local dollars out of reach.

In an interview before the session, House Speaker Richard Corcoran floated the idea of preventing counties from financing stadiums with tourist development taxes collected on hotel bills and several Republicans, like Lee and Brandes, have since said they would support it.

Tourist development taxes, collected from hotel stays, are critical to how officials in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties plan to finance a Rays ballpark. Without local contribution, teams have said they may have to look outside of Florida.

[Florida House of Representatives]

Rep. Bryan Avila likens public subsidies for professional sports stadiums to corporate welfare.

House Republicans have found other ways to go after these deals. Avila's bill, prohibiting professional teams from building stadiums on public lands, passed the House only to fail later in the Senate.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican expected to become the next Senate President, said he opposes state money for stadiums but wouldn't put the same restrictions on localities. Young, a rising star who represents a competitive Tampa district, felt the same.

But the makeup of the Senate, traditionally viewed as the more moderate chamber, could shift quickly as House Republicans elected during the Tea Party wave move to upper chamber to replace Senators pushed out of office by term limits.

Corcoran, who is plotting a run for governor, will continue to have influence in the House as his hand-picked successor, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, shares his political philosophy.

"This isn't 1995 anymore," Lee said. "You don't need the kind of financial support to keep teams in a major media market like Tampa Bay that you might have needed 25 years ago. The argument just isn't as strong."

Steve Contorno can be reached at Follow @scontorno.