MLB commissioner Manfred confident Rays owner is ‘going to get’ stadium deal done

An artist's rendering of the Tampa Bay Rays proposed new ballpark in Ybor City. [Courtesy of Tampa Bay Rays]
An artist's rendering of the Tampa Bay Rays proposed new ballpark in Ybor City. [Courtesy of Tampa Bay Rays]
Published July 17, 2018|Updated July 18, 2018

WASHINGTON – Acknowledging both the challenges and urgency to work out a public-private financing plan, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday expressed extreme confidence in Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg to make a deal to the get the proposed $892 million Ybor City stadium built.

"I am a fan of Mr. Sternberg's creative ability and persuasive ability in terms of getting something done, I really am,'' Manfred said. "I think he's going to get this done.''

Manfred, not unexpectedly, said he liked the overall plan the Rays unveiled last week for the fixed-roof, glass-walled facility.

"I thought the design was innovative and well suited to the Tampa Bay market,'' he said. "I love the site; I told you that when I was there visiting it.
"I also thought the design was imbued with a sense of realism in terms of what it would cost to actually get the stadium built. It's not some crazy – I think it was economically efficient, let me use that term.''

Sternberg welcomed the vote of confidence. "The commissioner has faith in our abilities and we have faith in the region's abilities,'' he said later Tuesday.

How to cover that cost is the predominant issue for team, Tampa/Hillsborough government and area business leaders. And had better be No. 1 on the to-do list, per Manfred, speaking at the annual Baseball Writers Association of America meeting and also separately to the Tampa Bay Times.

"We're at a point in time where we need to figure out how those economics are going to come together,'' he said. "And the point's now. The point's now.''

Sternberg said last week the team would contribute more than the previously floated $150 million, "but it's not going to be multiples" of that, and thus less than half the total cost.

Manfred pitched for those external contributions, saying he felt it "completely appropriate" for business and "governmental entities" to participate in the financing, and touting stadiums as "municipal assets" that are indicative of a region's status as, well, "a major-league city.''
But he also said the fans need to show their support, in terms of buying tickets, sponsorships and other ways, to justify the team's contribution.

"Some of it is going to be capital, that's fine, I'm sure he's prepared to do it,'' Manfred said. "But some of it is going to be debt. And you need support from the fans day in and day out to generate revenue to pay debt, that's all I'm saying.''

Manfred also reiterated his support for the area, despite the ongoing attendance issues at Tropicana Field.

"To me, Tampa -St  Pete is a major-league market,'' he said. "And I think Stu believes that, and that's equally important. And that's why we've spent so much time and effort there.''

Sternberg has suggested that other owners, who contribute to support the Rays via a revenue-sharing plan, are losing patience with the decade-long pursuit of a solution.

Manfred didn't dispute that, but steered clear, as he has throughout this process, of setting any deadlines or making any threats involving moving the team out of the market.

"There are certain things we might like to consider (such as expansion, which seems to becoming a nearer-term issue, and thus resulting realignment and changing the playoff format) that are on hold until (the Rays stadium situation is resolved),'' he said. "The industry is not neutral on this. The industry subsidizes, through revenue sharing, both franchises in Florida, and need to get them as strong as we possibly can as quick as we can. ''

Manfred sounded more bullish about the Oakland market, where the A's have also been long seeking a new stadium and currently don't currently have a definitive site or plan. Manfred said MLB "remained committed" to the Oakland market not just because of the tradition of franchise stability but because "I believe that there is not another market in the United States that has the upside potential that Oakland has" and they would regret leaving.

Though the players union has no decision-making role in the Rays stadium, union chief Tony Clark said the group was pleased with the progress in the sense that having all franchises in better overall shape was good for the game.

"We take it as a positive that those conversations continue to be had,'' he said.

The Rays plan to have the new stadium open in Ybor in 2023. They have until the end of this year to let St. Petersburg officials know if they plan to leave the Trop before the 2027 end of their current agreement.

Unrelated to the stadium quest, the Rays are the subject of a grievance filed by the players union this spring claiming they, along with the A's, Marlins and Pirates, were not complying with rules requiring revenue-sharing money be spent to improve the on-field product.

Though Clark said the process was ongoing, Manfred took issue with the original complaint, saying the union filed "for publicity reasons" and is just now seeking evidence.

"Usually what happens is you conduct an investigation and then you file a grievance,'' Manfred said. "In this case … they filed a grievance and we are now going back and forth with the union in what I would call the investigatory phase that usually precedes a grievance. That's the best I can do for you.

"Literally they want to sit down and talk to clubs about why they made what decisions they make. I don't know why you file a grievance to say they've made inappropriate without first learning why they made those decisions. But, their prerogative.''

Clark said the Rays and A's having winning records, and the Pirates at 48-49, does not impact the issue: "The concerns, the reason for the grievances being filed to begin with, the fundamentals there haven't changed.''

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.