Threat to contract Tampa Bay Rays may be gaining credibility

ST. PETERSBURG — An old acquaintance returned to the Rays stadium conversation this week. Or, from Tampa Bay's point of view, I suppose you would say an old enemy.

Contraction, once again, is in the news. Maybe it has been a few years since we've heard about the possibility of eliminating teams, and maybe it has been even longer since the Rays were part of the discussion, but you have to realize this is the bargaining chip that never dies.

A recent column by Ken Rosenthal at foxsports.com said there have been rumblings among major-league owners that Tampa Bay and Oakland should be candidates for relocation, if not annihilation.

And like a train forever on schedule, contraction returns just as another collective bargaining agreement is set to expire.

So should Tampa Bay fans be practicing their panicked expressions this morning? Probably not. I'm guessing there is zero chance the Rays, or anyone else, will be contracted before the next labor deal is finalized in the coming months.

On the other hand, you might have some summer nights available come 2017.

Contraction always has struck me as more of a bluff than a legitimate threat, but it might just work in the Rays' favor as the stadium debate continues to drag on. And, trust me, it will drag on.

The Rays, at this point, are no longer in the stadium campaign business. The team offered its vision for a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg a few years ago and was shouted down almost immediately. Ownership then stated its preference to talk about locations outside of St. Petersburg and was rebuffed by Mayor Bill Foster.

So now, the team seems willing to wait. Wait for what? I'm guessing for the leverage to shift in ownership's favor. And there are several reasons why that might happen.

No. 1: Attendance is not going to miraculously improve. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but there just doesn't seem to be any evidence that Tampa Bay will suddenly start selling enough season tickets to draw 2 million fans a year to Tropicana Field.

It didn't happen in 1999 when the Rays were still on their honey­moon, it didn't happen in 2009 when they were coming off an appearance in the World Series, and it doesn't appear as if it will happen this year coming off an American League East title.

We can argue all day long whether the economy is to blame (it is, to some degree), whether the stadium is to blame (it is, to a lesser degree), whether market demographics are to blame (they are, to a large degree), but the bottom line is attendance has never been impressive, and it's hard to imagine that situation changing any time soon.

And the longer that trend continues, the more evidence the Rays will have for nonsupport.

No. 2: When contraction was first brought to the bargaining table in 2002, baseball did not have nearly as much revenue sharing. That meant there was really very little advantage to owners in spending hundreds of millions of dollars to contract teams.

That's not the case today. Between revenue sharing and central fund money, the Rays are drawing more than $60 million annually from MLB's coffers. If you add the Athletics to that equation, you're talking about nearly $1 billion in eight years. And that's a pretty nice incentive for other owners to think about buying out Oakland and Tampa Bay with a lump sum.

Again, I don't think that will happen before this collective bargaining agreement. But when the next agreement expires, there could be an awful lot of chatter about ridding baseball of longtime welfare recipients.

No. 3: The stadium lease at Tropicana Field may extend through 2027, but the debt payments on the stadium will be paid off in 2017. At that point, you could argue that the lease would simply be voided without any monetary damages if the team ceased to exist.

Owner Stuart Sternberg has always insisted he would not move the franchise. He has also said the team would not be playing at Tropicana Field by the end of its lease. How do you reconcile these two declarations without a new stadium?

By simply accepting a fat check from MLB and folding the franchise.

Now, obviously, this is a ton of conjecture. And unforeseen circumstances will almost certainly impact some of these scenarios.

But I've watched for years how baseball operates in stadium situations, and the league always looks for leverage. Relocation may not be much of a factor in Tampa Bay's case because of Sternberg's previous statements and because there are so few attractive cities available.

Contraction, however, has some appeal for MLB as a threat. And that threat will continue to grow day by day, dollar by dollar and empty seat by empty seat.

Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Tampa Bay is now on the clock.

Threat to contract Tampa Bay Rays may be gaining credibility 02/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 10:14pm]

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