PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays officials have been hard at work since getting permission six weeks ago to look throughout Tampa Bay for a new stadium site, conducting initial research, crunching numbers, meeting with civic and business leaders, even taking impromptu field trips.
But ultimately, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday, what they most need to know is relatively straightforward:
Where — if anywhere — in the Tampa Bay area are they most likely to get the increased corporate support necessary to survive.
"We need to really, most importantly, get to the bottom of, finally, what type of support is out there, and is it meaningful and impactful to where the stadium will be located to change that support?" Sternberg said.
"Does a business, does an organization, whether it's a five-person business or a 500-person business, or a 5,000-person business, does their support change if we're 8 miles away or 28 miles away or sitting exactly where we are but in a new facility?"
That search has been ongoing during the franchise's first 18 seasons without much success, as the Rays regularly rank at or near the bottom in attendance and, correspondingly, have one of the lowest payrolls of the 30 major-league teams.
But Sternberg, speaking during a Tuesday morning visit to spring training camp, said he is confident they can find the necessary corporate support in the Tampa Bay market.
"As an optimist, I believe it's there," he said. "It's just that . . . as opposed to many other areas, we're going to have to beat the bushes a little more to try to more than suss it out, just really smoke it out."
To get a sense of their target, he pointed out that only one-third of the Rays' support is corporate, whereas most pro sports teams gets two-thirds from the business side and one-third from the public.
That challenge to flip that is greater, he said, because of the lack of a major corporate base in the Tampa Bay area, mentioning IBM, Apple, Sysco and Target as companies helping other teams.
"What we do have, if it's a 10-person business or a 1,000-person business and everything in between, can we drum up the support from those businesses . . . because they believe baseball is important for their community, as we believe it is, for their region, as we believe it is, for their businesses, as we believe it is, and for their employees," he said.
While that search for corporate support has the team working through a "much deeper process" than most teams seeking new facilities, the Rays also will have to eventually face the standard, and substantial, hurdles of identifying and procuring a site, developing a workable public-private financing plan and actually designing a stadium in what they say will be futuristic style.
The work is well under way, Sternberg said, with a rough but not binding timeline of narrowing sites in the next six to nine months and seeking resolution within 18, or by the end of 2017 anyway. They will rely heavily on the cooperation and coordination of area leaders on both sides of the bay in collecting information. Sternberg joked that the process will include "osmosis and sponge and carrot/stick — everything," to sort it all out.
"It's going to be up to them in a lot of ways to bring out the business and show us that there's some support," he said. "We're not asking people for a million dollars, but tens of thousands — four season tickets, a suite, some radio advertising. A to Z is all there. Newspaper. Whatever it happens to be.
"But we need to see that there's a desire to do that, and if we and the powers that be on both sides of the bay go out and it's not sufficient, we're all going to have to figure something out.
"We're going to have to first, most importantly, say what's it going to take for you to support us? Does it matter where we are? My sense is the answer is yes it does matter. And, okay, why does it matter? And if so, where should we be? And we'll triangulate it in."
Sternberg, who took over the team in October 2005, said he remains optimistic they can make it work in the Tampa Bay market.
"It's never going to be Boston. It's never going to be Chicago. It's never going to be San Francisco. It's never going to be Los Angeles. It's never going to be Dallas. It's never going to be even Minnesota. It's never going to be New York. It's never going to be Atlanta. I can keep going," Sternberg said.
"I know what we are not. But I do believe strongly that in the bottom third of the markets in baseball we have the opportunity and possibility to be at least squarely at the front end of that as opposed to the bottom end of it.
"And that's good enough. Is it great? No. But it's good enough."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays