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Miami stadium deal for Marlins sends bay area up to bat

ST. PETERSBURG — Soon, the shovels will hit the ground in Miami. Which means the dirt is about to fly in Tampa Bay.

In case you hadn't heard, county commissioners in Miami-Dade approved a financing package late Monday night for a $634 million stadium project for the Florida Marlins.

Officially, that deal has no direct impact in Tampa Bay. Realistically, you can assume we are now sitting directly in baseball's crosshairs.

With the Marlins out of the way, assuming Miami is able to secure financial bonds, Tampa Bay and Oakland will graduate to the position of Major League Baseball's neediest franchises.

So what, exactly, does that mean? It means Bud Selig is going to start taking a more active role in Tampa Bay's situation. It means his designated henchman, Bob Dupuy, is going to start knocking on the doors of local politicians.

It means Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has a prime rib buffet with Stuart Sternberg's name on it, and it means the good folks in Portland, Ore., and San Antonio, Texas, are now fantasizing about B.J. Upton instead of Hanley Ramirez.

It means, essentially, the clock is now running.

Granted, that is not quite as scary as it sounds. It took the Marlins around a dozen years to finally secure their stadium deal, so there is no reason to think Tampa Bay is in imminent danger. But, rest assured, the heat will slowly be turned up.

That's just the way these things work. No community is eager to fork out hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium, and no owner is happy knowing his team lags behind every other in revenue opportunities.

It's a combination that inevitably leads to confrontation. To accusations. To one side screaming about subsidizing millionaires, and the other side shouting about community assets. Usually, it leads to compromise.

Counting the Marlins, there have been 22 stadiums built, or planned, since Tropicana Field opened in 1990. If you take away classic ballparks such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium, and the extensive renovations in Anaheim and Kansas City, the Rays are on a very short list of undesirable facilities.

As distasteful as it seems for tax funds to be funneled into a ballpark, local governments from San Diego to Philadelphia, and from Seattle to Miami, have decided it was a wise community investment.

"It's exciting to see Miami, and the entire South Florida community, has secured major-league baseball for the next couple of generations," Rays president Matt Silverman said. "Their willingness to invest $500 million in a baseball stadium and parking facilities are a strong indication of how much they value the Marlins, and baseball, in their community."

The most interesting part of Miami's deal is the split between public and private financing. The Marlins are committing about $120 million and will reap most of the revenues from the stadium and parking. The city and county will contribute the rest.

"It moves the bar a bit in terms of the size of the public investment," said Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, a book that takes a critical look at public funding for sports facilities. "Stadium costs seemed to be shifting to the private side in recent years, with the Cardinals getting about one-third public funding and the Mets and Yankees around one-half. The Marlins deal looks like three-quarters of it is coming from public financing.

"If people start pointing at the Marlins deal as the new baseline, that's going to be troublesome for Tampa Bay because it's a pretty lousy deal."

Tampa Bay is stuck in a catch-22 when it comes to the amount of public money it will likely take to get a ballpark built. The Mets and Yankees can afford to pony up a greater percentage because they tend to be more profitable.

Franchises such as the Rays, Reds and Brewers do not generate as much revenue, and so those clubs seek more public funding. And smaller communities tend to look at baseball as a vital commodity, meaning they are more willing to invest in the idea of retaining their status as a big-league market.

So what does it mean in the short term for Tampa Bay?

Probably very little. The Rays have been careful not to frame their desire for a new stadium as a threat to leave. And there is no slam dunk option for relocation.

"I don't know, at this time, if relocation is a viable alternative," said Maury Brown, founder of the Business of Sports Network. "You're dealing with the idea of these municipalities coming up with hundreds of millions of dollars in a bad economy. It's just not realistic in the near-term."

That does not mean the Rays are going to simply give up. They may be content, for now, to let a local steering committee examine stadium issues and come up with recommendations.

But Sternberg is not going to wait forever. He will give Pinellas County the first shot at coming up with a solution. After that, he will likely entertain offers in Hillsborough.

Sternberg has, thus far, lived up to most of his promises, so I have no reason to doubt him when he says he will not demand a new stadium. But I also do not think he will willingly accept subpar revenues. So if, down the line, he sees no momentum toward a new stadium, my guess is he will sell the team.

As for a timeline, that's anybody's guess.

I just know the clock is ticking.

Miami stadium deal for Marlins sends bay area up to bat 03/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 6:23am]
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