The Tampa Bay Rays entered Friday's series opener against Toronto with a chance to cut their wild-card deficit to 1.5 games, but nobody in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area seems to care. Tropicana Field was literally half full, as just 18,093 Rays fans deemed the game and its accompanying playoff implications worthy of their time. That's even less than the 18,663 that the team has averaged this year, the second lowest total in MLB. It's a familiar sight for a franchise that has never attracted 2 million fans in a season, despite a World Series appearance in 2008 and an AL East division championship last season. Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg is understandably frustrated, and believes that a new home is the cure for his team's attendance ills. And if he doesn't get one, he's subtly threatening to move the team. There's just one problem.
The Rays have nowhere to go, and St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster knows it. It's the reason why Foster has been so rigid in his stance that the team either continue playing at Tropicana Field or seek a new park elsewhere in Pinellas County. The team is handcuffed to The Trop (and St. Petersburg) by a lease that doesn't expire until 2027, and Foster knows that too. It's why he continues to forbid Rays owner Stuart Sternberg from exploring potential stadium sites across the bay in Tampa. Sternberg isn't opposed to a new ballpark in Pinellas County, but he refuses to enter such negotiations unless he is simultaneously allowed to explore sites in neighboring Hillsborough County (i.e. Tampa) as well. Sternberg and Foster are very publicly not speaking, and, given the leverage that Foster has, that fact will likely not change anytime soon. Unless...
Sternberg finds a suitor. And Tampa doesn't count. For one thing, there is nothing to indicate that attendance would be any better in Tampa than it is in St. Petersburg. The Bucs were blacked out locally for the entire 2010 season (in which they went 10-6) and the first two home games of 2011 because they were unable to sell enough tickets. If the city can't support a competitive NFL team for 8 games a season, why should anyone believe that it would support the Rays for 81? The lone result of a move to Tampa would be a nicer park, and maybe a slight bump in revenue from the luxury boxes that The Trop lacks. Conversely, Sternberg would have to throw in a considerable amount of his own money for a new ballpark, so it doesn't make much sense anyway.
He needs a San Antonio or a Charlotte to step up and come after him. A Portland or a Las Vegas. A city that is a real threat to the Rays' existence in the Tampa/St. Pete area altogether. Without that, Foster has no incentive to give into Sternberg's demands, and Sternberg has no choice but to continue to trim payroll and play in front of a half-empty stadium every night. It's a shame, too, because the Rays certainly deserve better.
The Rays are the type of team a stronger baseball market would wholeheartedly embrace. Want young, marketable superstars? David Price and Evan Longoria fit the bill. Outgoing, media-savvy (that's important these days) manager Joe Maddon is a likable, benign "baseball man" who's easy to root for. Executive vice president and de facto GM Andrew Friedman is considered one of the brightest young minds in the game, and has kept the team competitive despite having to work with the second-lowest payroll in MLB. It's scary to think how good the Rays could be if they had a little money to throw around, rather than a payroll roughly 1/5 the amount of Boston and New York's. Everything about this scrappy, understated bunch screams "Support us!", but it hasn't happened in St. Petersburg. It wouldn't happen in Tampa, either.
But if Sternberg is serious about getting a new stadium AND keeping the team in the Tampa/ St. Petersburg area, he needs one of those outsider cities to court him. In that case he either scares Foster into keeping the team in the area, as Sternberg prefers, or gets a sweetheart stadium deal in a city that would probably do a better job of supporting the team than its current one does.
But without a viable alternative, Sternberg and the Rays are stuck in the same downtrodden stadium in the same apathetic city.
Rob Smith is a contributing writer for the Business of Sports Network. He can be reached on Twitter @RobSmithUSF or on his personal blog, http://smithersports.blogspot.com/
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