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  1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: Low-attendance Athletics fund own stadium, how about Rays?

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg talks with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred before the start of a game at  Tropicana Field, a venue both men want out of. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times (2016)]
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg talks with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred before the start of a game at Tropicana Field, a venue both men want out of. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2016)]
Published Nov. 21, 2017

I would like to believe what Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said about a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

It sounded good when he told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, "I'm more focused on working with the community to figure out how we can make this work than on what's going to happen if we fail."

That's what someone interested in a serious partnership should say.

But that was followed by the "uh-oh" moment we always knew would be there. Manfred said baseball needs more evidence of community "support" before this stadium stuff gets serious.

It sounded an awful lot like code for "pay up, or the Rays are outta here."

Connect the dots and it sounds like there is a showdown coming.

Communities are planting flags against using millions of taxpayer dollars to enrich billionaires and it would not surprise me a bit to see Tampa join that party. I want the Rays to stay, but there can't be more giveaway deals (see Stadium, Raymond James).

In the National Football League, the cities of St. Louis and San Diego balked at their team's demands for fancy new digs and saw the franchises move to Los Angeles.

The same thing will happen here if baseball believes this community will divert hundreds of millions of public dollars into a private business.

Oh, well.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg said that if he digs real deep into the couch cushions, he might be able to chip in $150 million toward a ballpark in Ybor City that could cost $800 million.

My advice: Keep digging.

By the way, how did the price jump to $800 million? The Oakland Athletics, the Rays' roommate at the bottom of baseball's attendance list, recently announced plans for a $500 million stadium that, get this, THEY WILL PAY FOR!

That's right. A team struggling nearly as much at the ticket counter as the Rays said its new home will be privately financed. That's how it should be.

Then, there is this: Sternberg said while some of the expected revenue spike for the club will go toward the stadium, a large share would go into increased payroll.

Stop there for a moment.

Baseball's economics are insane, driven by franchises in huge markets that can spend whatever it takes to achieve their desired result. I understand it takes a lot of skill for a player to make it in the big leagues, but c'mon.

The New York Yankees had an opening-day payroll of $196 million in the just-completed season. They had nine players making at least $12.5 million.

The Rays were at about $70 million and Sternberg has promised steep payroll cuts for next season. Then, there is this: Even with a new stadium they will never generate enough cash to spend like the Yankees.

Baseball is not going to adopt the revenue sharing and salary cap used by the NFL, so markets like this will always be playing catch up.

That brings us back to the whole community "support" notion.

Corporate ticket sales here lag significantly behind other markets. Local business owners have a bottom line, too, and the entertainment value of those tickets is hurt because people don't want to make the drive to Tropicana Field from Hillsborough.

The Rays and baseball are correct to say that part of the equation must be better, and I believe it would be for a stadium in the right place. No owner in any sport will set up shop in a place where people don't buy tickets.

Commitment goes both ways, though. Do the Rays really want to be here, or do they want Hillsborough County taxpayers to show "commitment" by paying a big bill for another stadium?

If that's case, baseball shouldn't be surprised to have that bill thrown right back in its face.

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