ST. PETERSBURG — So, three hours before the season’s first pitch on Thursday, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg threw a curveball of his own.
It wasn’t nasty. It wasn’t unexpected. It didn’t really change a thing. And yet it still created an unmistakable buzz in some parts of the community.
Standing in front of the dugout before the Rays played the Tigers on opening day, Sternberg said he was optimistic a deal for a new stadium could be reached in St. Pete by the end of the calendar year. As statements go, that was about as straightforward and innocuous as it gets.
But, of course, it didn’t end there.
Sternberg very casually — and you can assume purposefully — said if an agreement was not reached in that window, “then there’s not a deal to be done.”
That was the curve that buckled some knees.
It wasn’t anything that hasn’t been hinted at a thousand times before by Sternberg, Major League Baseball officials, politicians, journalists, fans and passing trolls on social media. We’ve heard for years that the Rays were getting nearer to a point where they could start talking to other markets about preparing to move the franchise once the Tropicana Field use agreement expires after the 2027 season.
The difference this time is the comment didn’t match the vibe. In the year that Ken Welch has been sitting in the St. Pete mayor’s office, the stadium momentum has swung back in St. Pete’s direction. The announcement in January that Welch had chosen the Rays and the Hines development firm to redevelop the Trop land made the potential of a new stadium in Tampa Bay seem more realistic than at any point in the last decade.
So, within minutes of Tampa Bay Times Rays writer Marc Topkin’s story about Sternberg’s comments going up on tampabay.com, phones began to buzz. Was there a rift in St. Pete? Are the Rays plotting their escape? Does Randy Arozarena have an Expos bumper sticker on his car?
Few storylines take up as much bandwidth in this marketplace as the Rays stadium saga. It has all the ingredients of a delicious debate. The St. Pete versus Tampa rivalry. Taxpayer versus millionaire. Roof versus open air. Public transportation, TV revenue, empty seats, economic impact, franchise values.
Every step of the process is scrutinized; every comment goes in a blender.
So, was there a purpose to Sternberg’s words? Yes.
Was it a new escalation in the stadium struggle? No.
Sternberg has a rare commodity — there are only 30 major-league franchises — in a market that has underperformed at the box office by industry standards. That is undisputable. Since 2017, the average team has drawn roughly 26,400 fans per game. Tampa Bay has drawn about 13,500.
Making the disparity even more glaring, the Rays have been one of the most successful teams on the field since then.
Sternberg wants to get closer to the middle of the MLB pack in revenues, and getting an attractive stadium deal is one way to do it. That is pretty much the motivation behind everything he says when it comes to stadium conversations.
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Does that mean the December deadline and the “then there’s not a deal to be done” comment were veiled threats? Of course they were. Does that mean the continuing conversations with Tampa/Hillsborough County about a possible stadium are leverage? Of course they are.
Does that mean the deal in St. Pete is destined for doom? No, it doesn’t.
Look, I don’t know if the Rays will come to an agreement with St. Pete and Pinellas County. It’s a remarkably complex negotiation, with the Rays hoping to improve their financial situation, the city and county hoping to get the most bang for their buck in the community by creating a centerpiece attraction for the redevelopment of 86 acres of prime real estate, and the Hines group hoping to turn a healthy profit off a decade-long endeavor.
None of those stakeholders needs to make this deal. The Rays could wait until their lease is up and potentially get a better offer in some other market. St. Pete and Pinellas County could chase other businesses to spark economic development in that downtown-adjacent area. Hines can build anywhere in the world.
Presumably, that’s why the Rays haven’t come to an agreement with previous mayors in St. Pete. Or Tampa, for that matter. Everyone is looking out for their own best interests, as they should.
And occasionally that means reminding the politician across the negotiating table that you have leverage. Or if you’re a politician, reminding the businessman that you have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.
And that’s all that’s happening here. Just the normal back-and-forth of intense negotiations.
With, you know, a baseball team, a city’s future and generations of fans hanging in the balance.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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