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Is A’s move from Oakland a cautionary tale for the Rays in Tampa Bay?

John Romano | The Rays have a lot in common with the A’s when it comes to stadium/revenue woes and a team that often outperforms attendance.
 
Oakland Athletics fans spell out "Sell Now" during a game against the Rays on Tuesday. Fans flocked to the stadium for a "reverse boycott" in an effort to demonstrate there was still enthusiasm for the team and to urge owner John Fisher to sell to a local buyer.
Oakland Athletics fans spell out "Sell Now" during a game against the Rays on Tuesday. Fans flocked to the stadium for a "reverse boycott" in an effort to demonstrate there was still enthusiasm for the team and to urge owner John Fisher to sell to a local buyer. [ SCOTT STRAZZANTE | AP ]
Published June 16, 2023|Updated June 17, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Can a dagger in Oakland draw blood in Tampa Bay?

Will a decision by politicians in Nevada put pressure on a mayor in St. Petersburg?

And is it liberating or terrifying to be the last community standing in baseball’s game of stadium roulette?

Those are all legitimate questions in the wake of recent events that have the Athletics on the precipice of moving to Las Vegas.

Theoretically, the choices of businesses and municipalities a dozen states away should not affect what we do here in Tampa Bay. But it’s tempting to read between the lines of the A’s/Vegas proposal and wonder if there are lessons to be learned or avoided as talks between the Rays and officials in St. Pete/Pinellas heat up this summer.

The biggest takeaway, of course, is that Major League Baseball apparently wasn’t blowing smoke about relocation. And there are a million distraught/angry fans in Oakland who are about to understand the ramifications of calling that bluff.

You see, there has been a persistent, and maybe pervasive, feeling around Tampa Bay that the Rays are simply using the threat of relocation to wrangle a better stadium deal out of one side of the bay or the other. And to a degree, that is absolutely true. But the Rays would argue they have made no threats and instead have offered only cautionary tales. And the Oakland news proves — threat or not — that the possibility of relocation is on the table.

If you don’t believe it could happen in Tampa Bay, then you might want to re-examine Oakland. No. 1, it’s a larger market. No. 2, it’s been an MLB community twice as long as Tampa Bay. No. 3, while attendance has nose-dived the past two years, Oakland has outdrawn Tampa Bay over the past two decades. Still think it can’t happen here?

Regrettably, this isn’t really about Oakland or Tampa Bay fans. It’s about a business realizing its potential.

Maybe that sounds harsh. Maybe you think devotion to a baseball team should supersede the bottom line. I would not argue that point. Maybe you also believe a community could find better ways of spending money than building a stadium. I would not argue that, either.

The Rays have added fan attractions this year at Tropicana Field, like Randy Land (in honor of Randy Arozarena) on Friday nights.
The Rays have added fan attractions this year at Tropicana Field, like Randy Land (in honor of Randy Arozarena) on Friday nights. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

But the reality is that most MLB stadiums involve large public investments. And most owners are going to take the best deal they can find.

That’s what happened in Oakland last week. The A’s are not leaving because they have averaged below 10,000 fans a night the past two seasons. They are leaving because they’ve been trying to get a new stadium built for 20 years and have never come to an agreement with local officials. Sound familiar?

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I’m not blaming Oakland politicians for failing. Maybe A’s owner John Fisher was being unreasonable. Maybe elected officials in California did a heroic job of not caving to the demands of a billionaire. But if history has taught us anything, it is that some other town will always overpay to get baseball.

It’s been that way for 70 years, since Milwaukee built one of the first publicly financed baseball stadiums and offered the Braves a sweetheart of a deal to leave Boston. Baseball owners have been leveraging one city against another ever since. Heck, for the longest time, Tampa Bay was a stalking horse in that game.

“Major League Baseball’s smaller markets — Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, in some ways, Miami — will always be susceptible to this,” said Marc Edelman, a sports law professor at Baruch College in New York who has written papers on MLB’s history of relocation. “What these teams do is take advantage of the fact that Major League Baseball is a closed league, and they find another city that desperately wants in, and they use that to push for publicly funded stadiums.

“The Rays, because they are in one of those second-tier markets, have some real power because they can make a reasonable threat to move to another city.”

Which brings us to Las Vegas and what it took to lure the A’s.

Turns out, not as much as you would have thought. The state legislature approved $380 million in public funds for what is expected to be a $1.5 billion stadium project. That’s about only 25 percent of construction cost.

Compared with the most recent stadium ventures that relied on public funds — in Texas (roughly 42%), Atlanta (54%), Miami (75%) and Minnesota (63%) — the Las Vegas deal involves much less government assistance.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, right, shakes hands with Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg on opening day.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, right, shakes hands with Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg on opening day. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Does that make St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch, and Pinellas County commissioners, more or less enthusiastic about committing public funds to a new stadium as part of the Tropicana Field revival? Do they stick around 25% because Las Vegas set a lower precedent, or do they go above 50% out of fear of what happened in Oakland?

The Las Vegas deal has some common denominators with the proposed Rays stadium in St. Pete. Both are part of a larger redevelopment with the stadium as a centerpiece. In Vegas, Bally’s will build a hotel/casino next to the stadium.

In St. Pete, the Historic Gas Plant district would get a makeover with housing, museums, park land and corporate space surrounding the stadium on an 86-acre plot of land. In both cases, the teams plan on building the smallest-capacity stadiums in MLB, around 30,000 seats.

The project in Vegas has some ridiculously ambitious projections for tourists filling up the ballpark. With local TV rights fees expected to drop in the coming years, it’s an interesting gambit to market a team as a tourism draw. And does that mean Orlando’s latest push for baseball is more attractive than it appears?

No matter how you choose to answer these questions, the clock is now ticking louder in Tampa Bay.

After 15 years of stadium-building debate around here, we are now at the top of MLB’s list. Commissioner Rob Manfred previously said that baseball’s next round of expansion — and the windfall it would bring current owners — would not proceed until the Oakland and Tampa Bay stadium conundrums were solved.

Oakland, apparently, has learned its sad and disappointing fate.

Now it’s our turn.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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