TAMPA — Cash in the form of Major League Baseball revenue-sharing is sustaining the Tampa Bay Rays, but the patience of other team owners is running low as they wait for the Rays to secure a new ballpark.
That's a key point local business leaders took Wednesday from an hourlong discussion with Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg and president Matt Silverman at the offices of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a nonprofit economic development organization.
Afterward, Sternberg declined comment, merely saying he's always glad to meet with "a lot of great business leaders who are very supportive of baseball."
But partnership chairman Chuck Sykes said it was good to hear from Rays leadership about issues that are growing more urgent. This month, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said the league might have to intervene because it appeared stadium talks between the Rays and the city of St. Petersburg have stalled.
"People asked questions about Bud Selig and his recent comments," Sykes said. "Bud's a very patient guy with these things, but (other team owners) are not happy with the situation … because if you think about it, the thing right now that's really sustaining the team is revenue-sharing."
Under the league's revenue-sharing program, teams saddled with aging stadiums and spotty attendance often receive tens of millions of dollars a year from wealthier teams with more robust fan bases.
That creates pressure for action, Sykes said. When he led a chamber of commerce task force that studied baseball stadium financing, some people told Sykes that baseball owners would never walk away from the nation's 14th-largest television market, but he said no one should become complacent.
What the Rays leadership told the partnership was that the team's "sustainability is driven off revenue-sharing," Sykes said. "That is not a long-term winning formula."
As a businessperson, he said, "I wouldn't get a false sense of security to say that there isn't real money behind this revenue-sharing that would cause somebody to say eventually, 'Time's up. I've had enough.' "
Rays leaders did not give the partnership an update on their talks with St. Petersburg, where Mayor Bill Foster has signaled a willingness to consider letting the team look in Hillsborough. But Sykes said ownership sounded "very positive" about the prospects for movement.
Sykes said it was interesting to hear that the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians used to be recipients of revenue-sharing, "then over time, as they worked with their various initiatives and new stadiums, they're now a payer into the system."
The partnership's role, Sykes said, will be to try to educate people about why it makes sense to let the Rays look around.
Three years ago, he noted, the ABC Coalition — a group of business leaders concerned about the future of baseball — issued a report noting, among other things, that only 19 percent of the region's population lives within a 30-minute drive of Tropicana Field. By comparison, of 10 major-league teams the coalition looked at, the next lowest was Seattle, with 48 percent of its population within a 30-minute drive of its stadium.
"We're just focused as the partnership on saying, 'Let the team look,' " Sykes said. "We don't really care where the stadium is. We just want to keep the team."