Time for tough talk on Tampa Bay Rays relocation

No negotiations. No proposals. No progress.

On the surface there was little to report in the unhappy marriage of Tampa Bay Rays ownership and the city of St. Petersburg, following their little get-together last week.

Except for this:

After both sides agreed to keep the posturing to a minimum, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster went on a talking-points tour of newspaper, radio and TV outlets in Tampa Bay, and deftly changed the narrative of the story.

Saying over and over again that he did not want to put words in Stuart Sternberg's mouth, the mayor then did a ventriloquist act that would put Las Vegas to shame.

He said the Rays intimated they did not have faith in Tampa as a stadium location. He said the Rays questioned Tampa Bay's viability to support three professional franchises. He said the Rays were interested in looking at sites outside of this market.

Presto!

This was no longer a matter of the mayor blocking a potential stadium in downtown Tampa, it was the mayor keeping the Rays from high-tailing it to Nashville.

Was it spin? Sure. Was it effective? Absolutely.

And Foster did not stop there.

He suggested Tampa Bay was going to lose Major League Baseball if attendance did not increase, and he subtly insinuated that Hillsborough County fans were the culprits.

Just like that, the focus shifted.

No one was talking about Tropicana Field's location, or the lack of corporate support in Pinellas County, or the stalemate between Foster and Sternberg.

Instead, the conversation became a question of whether Sternberg had ulterior motives, and whether fans have been negligent in their support.

Once again, it's powerful as a story line.

I just don't know if it's productive.

Or accurate.

Heaven knows, Tampa Bay has its challenges as a sports market. Lack of corporations, lack of community identity, lack of wealth are just a handful of the problems.

And I don't doubt that Rays ownership questioned the ability of the market to handle three professional franchises because there has been little evidence to prove otherwise.

But this problem does not get solved by blaming fans or portraying ownership as the villain. The only way Major League Baseball survives is by creating an atmosphere where a franchise is not selling its tickets one seat at a time.

And that's not a fan problem or an ownership problem. That's a question of having enough corporations and wealthy professionals near the stadium.

The city seems to be banking on the idea that increased marketing will goose attendance this season, and maybe that will work to some extent. I just don't know that it's a game-changer for the future.

For this thing to move forward, the Rays are going to have to take the lead because neither the business community nor local politicians seem inclined. And that means Sternberg is going to have to become more visible and more vocal and patiently explain what he is trying to accomplish.

For, in some ways, the Rays and Foster are making identical arguments.

Sternberg says the Rays will not be in Tropicana Field long term, and Foster said last week that they will be gone when the lease ends. Sternberg says fan support has not been sufficient, and Foster spent the week saying the exact same thing.

Sternberg said in 2007 that the 85 acres where Tropicana Field sits were more valuable to St. Petersburg as a multiuse development, and Foster suggested last week that he might one day ask the Rays to leave the Trop if a developer has a plan to reinvent that site.

So what's the problem?

I would guess it's a question of timing and perception.

Sternberg wants to begin exploring new sites now, and Foster doesn't want the Rays leaving St. Petersburg on his watch.

So instead of addressing the real issues, we get sound bites. We get insinuations of nefarious motives. We get fingers being pointed.

It makes for sexy headlines and interesting radio banter, but it doesn't come close to solving the problem. And this is a problem.

Waiting until 2017 or 2020 to solve it is probably not going to work. By then Sternberg, or any other owner, will have less incentive to negotiate with St. Petersburg.

At that point they can wait out the end of the lease and sell themselves to the highest bidder, whether that's in Tampa Bay or somewhere a thousand miles away.

It's a difficult issue, but we seem to be making it even worse.

If everyone agrees attendance at Tropicana Field is lackluster, if everyone agrees the land at the Trop is more valuable as a multiuse site, if everyone agrees the Rays are not going to stay in downtown St. Petersburg for the long term, why aren't we moving in one direction? At the very least, why aren't we talking about that direction?

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Time for tough talk on Tampa Bay Rays relocation 01/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 8:52pm]

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