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Now batting in Rays stadium debate: Tampa's CEOs

Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13.

Hopefully, treasurers and CEOs show up then, too.

This is how it goes around here. Baseball fans must keep one eye on the field for spring training, and the other on the financial pages for stadium-related updates.

The latest news, as reported by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, is that the Rays will soon announce that the Ybor City proposal is their top site for a location.

If you've been paying attention, that's no shocker. Getting closer to the bay area's business center has long been viewed as the antidote for the team's lackluster attendance.

What's far less certain is who pays for what.

And that, presumably, will be part of the team's announcement.

Now, don't get the wrong idea. The Rays are not ready to commit to a specific dollar figure. Neither is Tampa nor Hillsborough County. But there is another partner in this journey. Until now, a mostly silent partner.

If a stadium is to be built in Ybor City, it is going to require a much greater commitment from the business community than what we've previously seen.

That means major corporations buying sponsorships and suites. That means smaller businesses buying season tickets. That means providing the Rays with a more dependable revenue stream.

Rays fans have taken a beating nationally for not supporting a franchise that has a better record than 23 other teams in the last decade but has, at the same time, had the lowest attendance in the big leagues.

The truth is, that disparity has had more to do with the business community than everyday fans.

Many teams sell the majority of their tickets before the season's first pitch is even thrown because businesses buy season ticket packages to entertain clients or to hand out to employees.

That hasn't been the case in Tampa Bay.

As a tourism-driven economy, we don't have a lot of corporations. And certainly not a lot surrounding Tropicana Field. And so tickets have been sold, essentially, one at a time to you and your neighbors.

That's why, when the Rays make their upcoming announcement, it had better include economic commitments from businesses in Hillsborough County.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg caused a stir when he suggested to Tampa Bay Times baseball writer Marc Topkin that the team's portion of an $800 million stadium could be as low as $150 million.

Political leaders correctly shot that down as being too low. But the question of how much higher that figure goes will depend largely on pledges from the business community.

If the Rays can count on revenues being $50 million higher in Ybor City than they are at Tropicana Field, then they should be expected to invest more in the building of a stadium. If the revenues are only $15 million higher, then the amount they are willing to invest will clearly be less.

The other tricky part of the announcement will be St. Petersburg's role.

The Rays have an 11-month window to strike a deal with businesses and governments in Hillsborough. If they can't pull that off, they are potentially looking at another decade at Tropicana Field.

That means they need to commit to Ybor City, while not shutting the door on St. Pete.

Two weeks until pitchers and CEOs report.

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