TAMPA – Business leaders looking to drum up corporate support for a Tampa Bay Rays move to Ybor City welcomed the team's announcement that it may be willing to pay half the costs of a new stadium.
Speaking on Opening Day, Rays owner Stu Sternberg said that if the Rays can secure a lucrative naming rights deal, the team may be willing to kick in up to half of the estimated $800 million price tag for a new ballpark.
Sternberg previously said the team's contribution would only be about $150 million. The extra money would make a new ballpark easier to sell to a skeptical public and state lawmakers, who in recent years have shown little appetite to approve tax dollars for professional sports facilities.
"I think that's a positive step in the right direction, certainly more than he indicated before," said Tampa attorney Ron Christaldi. "The more community support we get, the more the Rays have pledged themselves to put into the effort."
Christaldi, along with Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, formed Tampa Bay Rays 2020, a nonprofit group formed to rally business support to bring the Rays across Tampa Bay.
The group, which receives funding from the Rays, is planning to next week announce the name of 100 business and community leaders who are onboard with its campaign.
Then in April, it will begin in earnest reaching out to the region's largest corporations to get pledges that they will back the team with the purchase of season tickets and corporate boxes.
Some area businesses, including Ashley Furniture and Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart, told the Tampa Bay Times in February they are ready to financially back the team with the purchase of tickets.
That support is considered make or break for the Rays to be a competitive team. Most MLB teams sell two thirds of their tickets to corporate customers. At Tropicana Field, however, only one third of ticket sales go to area companies.
"We feel if we can show that support, the financial case is there for the Rays," Christaldi said.
Christaldi and Sykes spoke Friday morning at Café con Tampa, a weekly current affairs discussion group.
Skyes said his confidence in the Ybor site's ability to turn around the team's dismal attendances is based on hard data.
The proposed 14-acre site on the northeast corner of Adamo and Channelside drives has 1.6 million people within a 30-minute drive, he said.
That is more than double the roughly 680,000 people who live within 30-minutes of Tropicana Field where the Rays have finished last in MLB attendance for the past six years.
"Every other Major League Baseball community has 50 percent and more of a population of their region within 30-minute drive," Sykes said.
Sykes said his support for the Ybor site isn't about baseball but about building a great urban core. The development of projects like a new ballpark and Water Street Tampa will create more impetus for the transportation improvements that the city needs, he said.
"All communities need great urban cores and we are on our way," he said. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."