St. Petersburg, Pinellas County pick consultant to negotiate with Rays

Public officials hope the four month contract could result in a tentative stadium agreement with the baseball franchise.
St. Petersburg and Pinellas County chose a consultant to help negotiate a new stadium deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.
St. Petersburg and Pinellas County chose a consultant to help negotiate a new stadium deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. [ Times (2021) ]
Published April 23, 2021|Updated April 23, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — City and Pinellas County leaders selected Inner Circle Sports LLC, a New York-based sports and entertainment investment bank, to help them negotiate a new stadium deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The four-month contract, which in draft form is valued at $80,000, will call for Inner Circle Sports to help public officials in three ways: prepare them for negotiations with the team, assist in the negotiations and ultimately to help the city draft a preliminary agreement with the team.

“Consultant will serve as the negotiation liaison between the City and the Tampa Bay Rays,” a draft version of the contract reads. “Consultant shall provide expertise and information on public and private stadium funding tools in an attempt to advance an agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays including direct funding, off-balance sheet or separate issuer/district funding, opportunity zones, new market tax credits, an all types of privatized funding. Further, Consultant shall provide information and expertise on the activities related to the implementation and execution of phases of stadium development.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman, County Administrator Barry Burton and members of their staffs selected Inner Circle Sports from five responses to the city’s solicitation. The company’s website lists experience representing buyers and sellers of sports franchises. It has also represented cities like Seattle in the “redevelopment, lease and funding” of Climate Pledge Arena and Las Vegas in its “pursuit of professional soccer and the redevelopment of certain downtown parcels to accommodate a new stadium.”

Related: If the Rays replace Tropicana Field, where will fans park?

Inner Circle Sports’ entry could propel forward negotiations that have ground to a halt between the city and the team over a new stadium. Team leaders have said they want to split home games between two new, outdoor venues in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, and that they would like to have that arrangement in place before their lease of Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he will not waive the lease’s exclusivity clause, which holds the team to playing all its home games at the Trop through the end of the contract term, and that he will not dedicate general fund dollars to fund the construction of a stadium for a part-time team.

The impasse has also bled into the discussions about redeveloping the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. City Council last week voted in opposition of moving forward with the Trop site redevelopment while the team’s future remains uncertain. Movement on the team’s front could relieve pressure on the redevelopment project.

While Kriseman has historically led the negotiations with the team, any stadium deal would include millions in county tourism dollars.

“We are encouraged by the selection of a consultant and by Pinellas County’s coordination of this effort,” Rays President Brian Auld said in a statement. “We look forward to working together, collaboratively with the County and St. Petersburg on this important and substantial project.”

Unless the Inner Circle Sports contract increases in value, Kriseman can execute the deal without City Council approval, as the value is below the $100,000 threshold that triggers Council oversight. Earlier this month, Kriseman’s administration lowered the contract value with another consultant — HR&A Advisors, which is helping city development officials weigh the four shortlisted Trop proposals — to $99,000, allowing him to approve it unilaterally. That incensed Council members, who had twice before pushed back against the timing of hiring HR&A, and who accused the mayor of circumventing their authority; Kriseman denied that’s why he did it.

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However, since the city and county are hiring Inner Circle Sports together, City Council will vote on an interlocal agreement between the two governments.

Related: How St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field pitches stack up on parks, homes, history

Kriseman announced that he and Burton had selected a consultant while on 95.3 WDAE’s morning sports talk show, Ronnie & TKras, on Thursday. He characterized the fits and starts as normal in large negotiations.

“You don’t see where both sides come in, they sit down, they break bread, they shake hands, and you have a deal,” he said. “Both sides are trying to do their best to protect their interest. Obviously, As mayor of St. Pete, my job is to put the best deal together for the residents of my city. Likewise, on the other side of the table, the Rays are looking to put the best deal that they can put together for the Rays.”

He added that he hopes bringing on Inner Circle Sports will help get “to a place where it opens their eyes and it opens our eyes. That’s the way typically compromises and resolutions and agreements comes to pass, both sides have to move a little bit.”

After that, Kriseman reiterated his pledge to withhold general fund dollars from going toward part-time stadium construction.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who appeared on Ronnie & TKras after Kriseman on Thursday morning, revealed that she and Auld had talked about reigniting conversations between Tampa and the team. The Rays spent three years, from 2016 to 2018, exploring stadium options in Tampa, with St. Petersburg’s permission. The team unveiled a $900 million Ybor City stadium proposal, but the window expired before it could get financing together.

“I’ve said all along that we, Tampa Bay, is too big a region to lose a major league sporting franchise,” Castor told the radio hosts. “So we definitely have to keep the Rays. They want to stay here, Tampa Bay fans want them here. So we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure they stay in the Tampa Bay area.”

Castor, too, said there is little appetite among Tampa and Hillsborough residents to publicly fund a stadium.

Both mayors said there are new resources, like opportunity zones, didn’t previously exist and that could possibly be tapped.