The Rays stadium future looks bleak, but it doesn’t have to be

Stu Sternberg can no longer talk to Tampa, and isn’t sure he wants to stay in St. Pete but there is still time to figure out a solution.
The Rays will open the 2019 season against the Houston Astros on March 28 at Tropicana Field, where they are bound by lease to play through 2027. But owner Stu Sternberg says the team's future has to be decided in the next 36 months. TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times
The Rays will open the 2019 season against the Houston Astros on March 28 at Tropicana Field, where they are bound by lease to play through 2027. But owner Stu Sternberg says the team's future has to be decided in the next 36 months. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published Feb. 9, 2019

ORLANDO — The owner sounds weary. The mayor sounds firm. And too many fans sound as if their last bit of hope was left in a squalid section of Tropicana Field’s now-empty upper deck.

This is what 12 years of failed stadium-building does to a community. It leaves you a little angry, a little disappointed and totally susceptible to conspiracy theories and rabbit holes.

So let’s take a deep breath and figure out what is real and imagined. What is likely and what is farfetched. Mostly, let’s try to figure out where the Rays might take the field in 2028.

We’ll begin by analyzing the news of the week:

* St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says the window of opportunity for a stadium in Ybor City closed six weeks ago when the folks in Tampa failed to come up with a feasible financing plan in time. The only way he will permit the Rays to talk to Tampa is if someone offers St. Pete a “sweet deal.’’

And Rays owner Stu Sternberg says Kriseman’s position is entirely justified. Furthermore, Sternberg says he will not ask for permission to talk to Hillsborough again.

So is that it? Is the Ybor City stadium proposal dead?

Not necessarily. Sternberg might not seek permission from St. Pete to resume negotiations, but that doesn’t mean someone from Tampa can’t ask Kriseman for a new 90-day window if the Ybor City plan ever becomes more fully baked. And that “sweet deal’’ Kriseman seeks could involve the very lucrative redevelopment rights that the Rays currently share on the Tropicana Field site.

“Mayor Kriseman has exhibited extraordinary political courage in the past on this issue,’’ said Tampa Bay Rays 2020 business group leader Ron Christaldi. “He absolutely should put St. Pete’s interests first, but it would surprise me if he stopped thinking regionally about what’s best for the entire market when it comes to the Rays future.’’

* The Rays 2020 advisory group and some Chamber of Commerce officials had a lunch in Tampa last month with Sternberg and Rays executives.

The exact phrasing is open to debate, but several people agree that Sternberg essentially said he would have a difficult time convincing his fellow baseball owners that it’s a good idea to build another stadium on the Tropicana Field site, even if he doesn’t have to pay a penny.

When asked about it at an owners meeting in Orlando on Friday, Sternberg said he needs hard evidence to convince Major League Baseball that a stadium in St. Pete could generate enough revenues.

“I would rather spend $400 million on a stadium that’s going to have 25,000 people a game than spend $100 million on a stadium that’s going to have 12,000 a game,’’ Sternberg explained.

“It’s like owning a Starbucks. If you have a store that’s only selling 12 cups of coffee a day, you can give me the store for free and I’m still not taking it because of all the associated costs.’’

This doesn’t mean St. Pete is a lost cause. But it does suggest the odds are long. And time is growing short. If there is no plan in place by 2022, the Rays can realistically begin thinking about a stadium that would open in some other market in 2028.

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* Kriseman took a leap of faith several years ago when he put together the deal that allowed the Rays to talk to Hillsborough County officials from 2016-18. At the time there were all kinds of unfounded suggestions that the Rays would use the agreement to somehow flee the state.

In retrospect, the agreement was the right decision even if it didn’t lead to a deal in Hillsborough County. And now Kriseman and St. Pete can open their own negotiations with the Rays with the knowledge that Tampa isn’t quite the baseball wonderland it once claimed to be.

So where does St. Pete go from here? Kriseman said the city is waiting for Sternberg to regroup and decide whether the Tropicana Field site is feasible for a new stadium. The Rays, he said, have to make the first move before the city makes an offer.

“They’ve got to let us know if that’s their intention,’’ Kriseman said. “I’m not going to negotiate against myself.’’

Sternberg said the Rays will re-examine the potential of a downtown St. Pete stadium to determine if there is enough potential for higher corporate sponsorships and ticket sales in the future.

By summer, he will have one of two answers for Kriseman.

It will either be no, or let’s explore this together.

“We would have to come up with real numbers,’’ Sternberg said. “Something I can go to baseball and say “Look, this isn’t going to leave us in the bottom 10 of revenues.’ If I come back to baseball and say “We did all this and we can be No. 24?’ Forget it. Goodbye. It’s gone.’’

One wild card? There is still one other dream scenario for the Rays in St. Pete. I’ve said it before but the Albert Whitted Airport site may be the greatest waste of prime waterfront property in America. It would take referendums and deal-making and arm-twisting, but it still should be explored.

* Does all this sound pessimistic? It should. It’s the nature of this kind of deal.

The Rays are not yet an institution in this marketplace, and so there is no keep-them-at-any-cost vibe. And neither Tampa nor St. Pete has a big enough corporate presence to make this deal either easy or appealing from the Rays standpoint.

The question is whether Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater, New Port Richey, Sarasota and Lakeland have the wherewithal to make it happen. Whether fans value having a Major League team in the market, and whether corporations understand what that means from an economic perspective. The question is whether our leaders can think regionally in a way they have rarely done before.

“I’ve told other people, “Shame on us if we just give up now,’’’ Christaldi said. “These things do not happen easily.’’