Stuart Sternberg: I should have been more aggressive in Rays stadium talks with Tampa

The Rays principal owner discussed his regret over negotiations with Hillsborough County and what needs to happen now that the team has shifted its focus to St. Petersburg.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg speaks with Tommy Pham (29) during the Tampa Bay Rays full-squad spring training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg speaks with Tommy Pham (29) during the Tampa Bay Rays full-squad spring training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published Feb. 19, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE —When talks for a new stadium in Ybor City collapsed in December, the Rays and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred threw shade, and much of the blame, on Hillsborough leaders.

But principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday that in retrospect Rays officials could have been more aggressive in pushing to complete a deal for the $900 million project before the Dec. 31 deadline.

“I think I probably would have pushed Hillsborough (officials) a little bit harder sooner,’’ he said at the team’s spring training camp. “Clearly when we — and I don’t say it would have changed anything — when we saw this thing was coming to a close and coming to an end around Thanksgiving time, it sort of spurred a lot to happen after that, which was a bit too little and a bit too late.

“Maybe I should have played like this, ‘If you don’t do something now, we’re leaving (the talks)’ or something sooner, but that’s just not my style. We try to work jointly with whoever we’re working with, whether it be our players and their agents or municipalities.’’

With the window to talk about a Tampa stadium closed, the focus for the team’s search has shifted back to St. Petersburg. But Sternberg said they will need into the summer to analyze the viability of doing so and be prepared to discuss specifics with Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has been waiting for this opportunity, preferring to build on the Tropicana Field site, which is slated for a massive redevelopment with or without a new stadium. Manfred told the Times this month there could be other workable sites in St. Petersburg.

“I know the city and (Pinellas) County have some needs and have some desires with funding and with land, and our land that we’re sitting on,’’ Sternberg said. “We’re not going to stand in the way of progress, and we want to be part of it.’’

But, he said, after all the work done on the Ybor site team officials will have to “start from scratch” again and will need time to “figure out what we can do, and not make any mistakes; I don’t want to look back and say what we could have done after the fact.’’

Given the struggles the Rays have had attracting fans and corporate support at the Trop site in their first 21 seasons, deciding to rebuild there will be a tougher sell.

Among the bullet points in their internal analysis are determining “our intention to stay, if it’s feasible for us to stay, if Major League Baseball believes it’s feasible for us to stay, what would it look like when we’re here, what needs to happen.’’

Sternberg made that clear Tuesday, saying that just having funding for the project won’t be enough to make a deal work.

“I think the support part of it is much more important than the funding part, but the funding part is incredibly important,’’ he said. “If we had 30,000-35,000 walking through the door every night and we had naming rights and we had big sponsors, the funding would be a layup. But if we continue to have 8,000, 12,000, 15,000 a night and not expand our sponsorship roles, it could be all the funding in the world and it’s meaningless.’’

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Sternberg said, as he often does, the Rays remain “very committed to seeing things through in Tampa Bay’’ and have a “strong belief and expectation, more importantly” they will stay. They are signed to play at the Trop through 2027, he also said that if there is no deal for a new stadium in the next several years they at some point will have to start looking at where they could play in 2028.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.