Reported new TV deal could be game-changer for Rays

The pact, reported to exceed $1.2 billion, could help fund a stadium or boost payroll — emphasis on "could."
Published Feb. 27, 2018|Updated Feb. 27, 2018

PORT CHARLOTTE — Two big answers about the Rays' long-awaited, lucrative new TV rights deal may have been provided in a Monday report by the well-respected Sports Business Daily that parameters of a rich extension with Fox are in place.

A large answer: that the new deal would kick in next season, meaning the expiration — for some reason, a bigger team secret than trade plans for Chris Archer — of the current pact, which was among the worst in baseball.

And a humongous one: that the deal, if — or even close to — as big as reported would be somewhat of a jackpot, averaging $82 million annually over a 15-year term, putting the total value in excess of $1.2 billion.

The pact reportedly would start with a $50 million payment in 2019, up from $35 million in the last year of the old deal that supposedly averaged in the $20 million range annually, and rise from there.

The SBD report was anonymously sourced and noted there remain "hurdles the two sides have to overcome" going into an upcoming key meeting, with potential for resolution by the March 29 season opener. (That means none of it is for sure, most of all the opening day agreement, especially since the whole thing could get caught up in Fox's planned sale of its regional sports networks to Disney.)

While it was known the Rays have been working toward a new deal, the immediacy and size of the pact — as reported — are staggering.
Coming at a time when the team is working to get others to cover the bulk of the cost of a new $750 million-or-so Tampa stadium, it will be a most popular topic of discussion in the community — and in the clubhouse, given recent deals to dump some higher-salaried veterans.

Rays officials, predictably, declined to say anything about any aspect of the report. If, and when, there is something to talk about, they will have a lot to answer.

The reported terms seem to make the deal a game-changer, given how the Rays annually rank near the MLB bottom in revenues based on attendance and the old TV contract.

But relatively speaking, not so much. A lot of teams are also getting more — and significantly more than the Rays will — from new TV deals, enough so that the Rays could still be in the bottom half overall. And they all are getting a one-time $50 million payment from MLB's sale of its advanced media division. So while the Rays can't cry as poor, they won't necessarily be moving up out of their small-market standing.

What the deal would seem to change — perhaps significantly — is the equation of the stadium financing, a three-sized puzzle of team, business and government/public contributions.

Or not. Though the team is likely to put in more than the initial float of $150 million, it may see the increased TV revenue as a separate stream. It may claim it goes more toward offsetting operating expenses — remember, the Rays have aimed to break even overall — than stadium construction (or debt servicing); and that kicking it into the stadium pool cuts into the overall increase in revenues that are for the reason for the new stadium. It wouldn't be a popular move, but it could be their play.

If the Rays don't put the money into the stadium, the onus will be to show it isn't going into their pockets.

The way to do that will be to put it on the field. For all the whining about not being able to afford a bigger payroll — even at the now projected $75 million (among their highest), they are some $65 million under MLB average — the new TV deal should allow them to operate a little differently.
Again, it's all relative. But between the winter market correction that has drastically cut free-agent contracts and the bump in revenues, they should have the option, anyway, of stopping the cycle of dumping players just because they are too expensive.

For now there are so many questions, including whether the deal — which would go to 2033, six years past the end of the use agreement at the Trop — is tied to Tampa Bay TV market numbers or is transferable if the Rays don't get a new local stadium and end up moving.

At some point, we'll get answers.

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.