Thursday, October 1, 2015

Is Stu Sternberg the most tone deaf owner in sports?

In 2005, the Tampa Bay Times profiled new Devil Rays owner Stu Sternberg. He was young, he was hip, and he was a baseball fan. According to the Times,
Sternberg's love of the game goes back to his childhood in Brooklyn. The youngest of three children, he was born and raised in the borough's Canarsie section, becoming an avid fan of the Dodgers and later the Mets.
At the time, Sternberg's Mets fandom was excusable. He was from New York and at least he wasn't a Yankees fan. And the message was that he was intent on changing the Devil Rays to winners.

In 2008, the New York Times wrote a piece on Sternberg. They talked about his Wall Street background and the job he did turning the Rays into winners. They also pointed out his continuing New York baseball fandom.
Sternberg, who still lives in Harrison, N.Y., in Westchester County, and retains his Mets season tickets, was so knowledgeable about baseball after leaving Goldman in 2002 that his first reaction to perhaps buying the then-Devil Rays was, he said, “Ewwww.”

The Rays were increasing in popularity in 2008, so no one made a big deal over the team's owner attending Mets games. The message was that as long as the Rays won and folks kept coming to Tropicana Field, the team and the fanbase would be fine.

In late 2011, Sternberg emailed Rays season ticket holders to tell them "the future of the Rays and Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay is precarious". Shortly thereafter, he issued an apology to the fanbase. Meanwhile, Sternberg still lived in New York and still rooted for the Mets.

In 2011, I wrote a public "letter" to Stu Sternberg on and requested that he keep the fanbase in mind when he speaks.
How about telling the media that the Rays have “the greatest fans in the world”, even if you don’t think it’s true? ... we respond well to compliments. Hearing from you that not enough of us go to games and that you might eventually move the team if we don’t get our collective butts to the ballpark is like telling your wife her dress actually does makes her look fat. It might be true, but you shouldn’t say it.
Four years later, Stu Sternberg's product is struggling in the public eye. The Rays have seen attendance decrease nearly 30% since 2010, they've traded key personnel and popular players, negotiations for a new ballpark have barely progressed, and the team remains second fiddle in its own market to teams that only play in the area in February and March. After seizing momentum as the area's darling, the Rays have also slid far behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. According to ESPN's 2014 Ultimate Franchise Rating, Lightning ownership were rated the 6th best ownership group in sports. Stu Sternberg and his staff were 89th on a measure based on "Honesty; loyalty to core players and the community".

Despite these downward trends, Major League Baseball continues to say the Tampa Bay market is viable and other teams have attempted to encroach on the spending power of the area.

Yet Stu Sternberg remains in New York. And according to media reports yesterday, remains a strong Mets fan.
“As a Met fan growing up and all, it’s wonderful to be here in September when things really do matter, and it’s a very exciting time to be a Met fan. And I am still, as well, even though I’ve got the Tampa Bay Rays,’’

Worse yet, these comments were said while introducing MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, only a week after MLB defended the Rays by swatting down a proposal by the Braves to train in the Rays backyard.

Stu Sternberg is a public relations nightmare. Ten years into his ownership, he still has not learned how to not offend Rays fans. Publicly advocating for another team when the team you own is struggling to expand its fanbase does not provide the best example. What message does rooting for another franchise send to his employees and his customers?

If owners are public, they should be front and center for their team. They should live and breathe the brand they want their customers to buy. If rooting for the Rays and living in Tampa Bay isn't good enough for the Rays owner, why should it be good enough for the residents of Tampa Bay?

Why should the fanbase buy a product when the owner prefers another product? That's like seeing the owner of a McDonalds eat at Burger King every day.

Would Mark Cuban ever root for another team besides the Dallas Mavericks? Cuban bought the Mavericks after the team went 19-31 in 1999-2000. According to Wikipedia,
In the 20 years before Cuban bought the team, the Mavericks won only 40 percent of their games, and a playoff record of 21–32. In the 10 years following, the team won 69 percent of their regular season games and reached the playoffs in each of those seasons except for one.
Like Sternberg, Mark Cuban made the Mavericks successful. But unlike Sternberg, Cuban is often front and center at his team's games. He, along with all-star Dirk Nowitzki, is a face of the franchise.

Not every owner has to be on Shark Tank or draw the ire of the league as often as Cuban, but he provides an excellent example of an owner as fan.

Owners can also be like Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and invest billions in developments and be a strong advocate for the area.

Or owners can root for another team but never mention it in public.

Stu Sternberg is what happens when people become successful for their financial skills, but then try to sell products and have no idea how to relate to customers. Sternberg has no clue how to reach the people he is supposed to be selling to. Keep in mind, in finance, there is no "customer", not like a restaurant or a car dealership. Wall Street investors are not known for their customer service. They don't have to be. They just have to make money.

And that's exactly what Stu Sternberg has done through his investment in the Tampa Bay Rays. Meanwhile, he continues to root for the Mets.

Stu Sternberg is an absentee owner. One who openly roots for another team. That's the worst kind of owner.