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Economist: Downtown Tampa stadium best for Rays and here's why

Published Jan. 28, 2013

TAMPA — Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist, one of America's pre-eminent sports economists, was in town last week to inaugurate a visiting lecturer's series at the University of South Florida's new MBA program in sports and entertainment management.

Zimbalist is a consultant for Major League Baseball and has consulted for groups opposing baseball on various issues, as well as helping the U.S. Justice Department draft a bill to partially lift baseball's anti-trust exemption. He recently talked with the Tampa Bay Times about baseball stadiums.

Do the Tampa Bay Rays need a new stadium?

Yes. The Trop is a bad facility in a bad location. The market is in the bottom third in Major League Baseball. The team performed over the last five years as well as any team. It has charismatic players, an interesting manager and an intelligent ownership group, and it still has the lowest attendance in baseball.

You are consigning them to be a break-even team without adequate resources to hold on to good players and field a winning team. However brilliant you think Matt Silverman, Stu Sternberg and Andrew Friedman are, there is no way they can keep performing the way they have performed. What is going to happen when they drift back, as all teams do?

St. Petersburg built the Trop and has a contract through 2027. Why should the city just let the team go?

They do have an investment and are entitled to a return. But it is in the best interest of the fans that the owners have a financial incentive to continue to keep the team as competitive as possible.

The (Trop) debt service will mostly be paid off in three or four years. Mayor (Bill) Foster has bargaining leverage and should use it. There are things he can extract from the Rays. But I don't think he should stand in the way of a proper solution.

Where should a new stadium go?

Downtown Tampa. It's very important in today's economics that stadiums be located as close to a business district as possible — particularly baseball, that can play six or 7 games a week. It enables the team to attract members of the business community to the stadium at the end of the work day and sell season tickets and premium seating.

Fans are of a higher economic demographic, so signage and corporate sponsorship becomes more valuable. You can create synergies with other businesses. You might have a tax increment financing district or tax abatement for a vibrant entertainment district.

What if five or eight years pass with no change?

Major League Baseball and the Rays could play hardball. They could contract the team, make it disappear and promise the players' union that no jobs will be cut.

Or the Rays could drift into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Either way, the team could then be brought back to life and relocated in another place.

There would be many ramifications to that and I would not call that threat a matter of great leverage on their behalf. But it is a card they could play.

Will the public have to pay for this?

In St. Petersburg, they would recover 85 acres that they could sell or lease, and they can extract things from the Rays in a negotiated solution. It would save the city in operating expenses. The citizens of Tampa might have to contribute, if that location is the solution. The citizens of St. Petersburg would be beneficiaries.

Where do you think this Tampa Bay stadium stalemate is headed?

I can only hope that Mayor Foster and Stu Sternberg will sit down at a table for sustained negotiations. Maybe bring in some people from Major League Baseball. Maybe bring in political representatives from Tampa, and sit down and realize there is a compromise in everybody's interest — and sooner rather than later.

I'm not predicting that, but I am an optimist. I'm convinced that a compromise is possible.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the following clarification:

Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist is a consultant for Major League Baseball and has consulted for groups opposing baseball on various issues, as well as helping the U.S. Justice Department draft a bill to partially lift baseball's anti-trust exemption. A Jan. 21 interview with Zimbalist did not include that information.

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