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Romano: Rays stadium share depends on how much they make in Ybor

How much the Tampa Bay Rays and principal owner Stu Sternberg pay for a new baseball stadium in Tampa, writes columnist John Romano, depends on how much new revenue the team thinks it can make if it moves to Ybor City. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Apr. 3, 2018

When it comes to the funding of a potential new ballpark in Ybor City, nothing has changed.

The Rays have not offered to pay more, and they've not offered to pay less. The only difference is how the observations of owner Stu Sternberg have been interpreted.

To understand this, let's go back to November when Sternberg sat down with Tampa Bay Times baseball writer Marc Topkin in a hotel lobby near Orlando and talked about stadium funding for the first time.

Sternberg suggested $150 million might be the team's share of the stadium cost, but his larger point was that the team's contribution would be predicated by how much extra revenue — in corporate sponsorships, suite and ticket sales — might be generated by an $800 million stadium in Ybor.

"We might find out ($150 million's) too much,'' Sternberg told Topkin. "We might find out that we can afford more."

Now fast-forward to opening day at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Sternberg was again asked about stadium financing and he suggested the team's share could theoretically be as high as $400 million, but, once again, it would depend on added revenues.

"You get me $25 million a year in stadium naming rights,'' Sternberg said, "and … I'll go halfsies."

To assume a new stadium in Tampa Bay might generate $25 million a year in naming rights — the current naming rights at Tropicana Field is a lot closer to $2 million — is wishful thinking.

It would sort of be like wondering if injured pitcher Nathan Eovaldi is going to win 25 games this year.

"You get me 25 wins from Eovaldi, and we'll win the World Series.''

If Sternberg had said that, everyone would laugh.

And you should probably laugh at the $400 million, too.

I'm not suggesting Sternberg was being untruthful or playing word games. In fact, I think his overall position has been remarkably consistent from the beginning.

As far as the Rays are concerned, the funding of the stadium has always been a sliding scale proposition.

If, for instance, team officials are convinced they can make $50 million a year more in Ybor than they are making in St. Petersburg, then a $400 million investment is not outlandish.

If it looks like their revenues in Ybor will only go up $15 million a year, then even a $150 million investment is less attractive.

Philosophically, that is the message Sternberg made in November, and it's the same message he delivered at Tropicana Field on Thursday.

It basically comes down to this:

How will the business community in Hillsborough react?

If corporate leaders decide a major league baseball team in Ybor City is good for business/quality of life/future growth, then they will commit to a certain spending level on tickets, suites and sponsorships.

And, ultimately, that will determine if a stadium gets built.

Because if the Rays see a greater chance at revenues, they will be willing to invest more in stadium construction. And if they commit more, there is less public financing that will have to be secured.

Like it or not, that has been the team's position from the very beginning.

So what is a realistic contribution from the Rays?

The $150 million first floated by Sternberg will not work. Not for an $800 million stadium. There simply won't be enough appetite among Tampa/Hillsborough leaders to pay for more than 80 percent of the stadium. The $400 million probably won't work either. It's hard to imagine revenues would project high enough for that to be a realistic investment for a team that could move anywhere it wants in 10 years.

Given those parameters, something in the $250 million range makes more sense. The Rays will say it's too much, and the community will say it's too little. And that's sort of the definition of compromise.

The point is that it doesn't matter what Sternberg says to reporters today.

What matters is what business leaders say to Sternberg by year's end.

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