ST. PETERSBURG — Turns out, Rays fans are not the only ones showing a renewed interest in recent happenings in and around Tropicana Field.
The Athletic reported Sunday that the Rays are getting inquiries from prospective ownership groups that might have an interest in moving the team out of the market, as well as Tampa businessman Dan Doyle Jr.
The Rays did not respond to specific details in the story, which was based on anonymous sources, but owner Stuart Sternberg did issue a statement that aimed for a more positive tone.
“I expect we will build a ballpark in Tampa Bay that will keep the Rays here for generations to come,” Sternberg said. “I also plan on remaining the Rays owner.”
So, what’s a baseball fan to believe?
With the Rays sitting atop the American League East two months into the season and attendance at Tropicana Field up more than 40 percent year over year, should you be worried about the team’s future? Is this speculation a precursor to bad news down the road?
The short answer is no. At least at this point.
That doesn’t mean The Athletic story is incorrect, just that it requires a little more perspective. Based on conversations Sunday, here are three things to consider.
1. The revelation about Doyle is apparently true, although with a caveat.
The Rays are deep into discussions about building a new ballpark as part of a major redevelopment at the Tropicana Field site. If ground is ever broken, the Rays will need to come up with hundreds of millions in either cash or loans to cover their portion of what’s expected to be a $1.2 billion cost.
Taking on an investor such as Doyle would be one way to cover that bill.
Sternberg would essentially be selling a portion of his considerable equity in the franchise instead of taking on loans that would hamper the team’s future payrolls.
It’s similar to the strategy the Rays were pursuing with the sister city plan in Montreal. Canadian businessman Stephen Bronfman was expected to purchase a minority share of the franchise, and his investment would have helped fund ballpark costs in Montreal and/or Tampa Bay.
And Doyle would be a logical addition to the ownership group. He is the chairman of Tampa-based DEX Imaging, which has long been one of the team’s main sponsors. His father, Dan Doyle Sr., was part of the Rays original ownership group with Vince Naimoli in the 1990s.
2. The idea that outside investor groups are calling is neither surprising nor overly concerning.
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Because of their low revenue streams, the Rays would theoretically have a lower price tag than a lot of teams. And with the use agreement at Tropicana Field set to expire after the 2027 season, the Rays would be attractive to potential owners wanting to move a franchise.
But, while MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been unhappy with the slow-moving efforts to build a new stadium in the area, he has also suggested Tampa Bay is a different market situation than Oakland, where he has given the Athletics permission to pursue relocation.
Sternberg has never openly courted potential out-of-town buyers, and his statement on Sunday seemed an attempt to shut down any discussion that the team might be on the move.
That doesn’t mean those inquiries aren’t real, but there is no evidence Sternberg is seriously considering selling a majority stake in the Rays.
3. The future is still dependent on stadium talks, particularly with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch.
If the Rays and Welch — as well as Pinellas County commissioners who will have a say in tourist tax funds — can come to an agreement in the next six to seven months, all of the other talk is superfluous. The Rays will have a new home for another 30 years, and Sternberg will almost certainly retain control of the franchise.
If the St. Pete plan falls apart, however, every other rumor will take on a more ominous tone.
Orlando might get a little more bold in its pursuit of the Rays, and those outside investors could put Sternberg’s number on speed dial.
The Rays could conceivably continue talking with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor in that scenario, but there has never been much indication that Hillsborough County or Tampa had the desire or wherewithal to come up with the public funds Sternberg is seeking to help build a stadium.
So, going back to the original question, what’s a baseball fan to believe?
The Rays are still in first place. Attendance is looking more promising, and the current administration at City Hall is more amenable to a new stadium than ever before.
Just don’t get too comfortable until you see the bulldozers.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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