Ever since the Tampa Bay Rays have announced their idea to split the baseball season with Montreal, few Tampa politicians have come out and opposed the plan, despite St Petersburg politicians calling out the Rays and opposing their plan.
As I have mentioned before, the Rays have three audiences they are appealing to. They are, in order:
1A) Local politicians - important to pass funding
1B) Local businesses - important to buy ads, corporate season tickets, and other cooperation
3) Fans - irrelevant to funding. Important only for one revenue stream and visuals.
The Rays plan currently is a stadium in Tampa, more specifically in Ybor City. There are several plots in Ybor in which a stadium can be built - many of which are in tax-break funded redevelopment zones. These zones are in the Rays advantage, as they will have to pay less for the stadium.
(Although they are trying to pay nothing as it is, but if they have to pay, they want to be in an area that will give them a tax-break for "redevelopment". How a sports stadium is the best use of land ear-marked for redevelopment is beyond me but that's not the political perspective I want to address today.)
Because Jane Castor and other local politicians don't care how many games the Rays play in Tampa as long as Tampa is in the name and the cost is acceptable.
Let me explain:
Economists like to say that local sporting events are not economic engines and are predominantly only a reshuffling of local money. For example, if they are was no sports in a city, people would go to the movies, go to dinner, go bowling, go to the beach, etc. They would still spend, but on other leisure activities. Local sports doesn't rely on tourists for existence and local economies don't rely on sports for existence.
Tampa politicians aren't supporting the Sister City plan for economic reasons. They are supporting it for marketing reasons.
"Champa Bay" is very catchy. Being a "City of Champions" is a great pitch to tourists, businesses, and people looking to move. Everyone wants to be near a winner and sports is a great community unifier. I guarantee people of differing political, religious, and other demographic persuasions attended the championship river parades of the Lightning and Buccaneers.
As long as the name "Tampa" is on a team, Tampa can reap the benefits of a team's success. The bubbles of COVID-19 seasons proved this. The Lightning didn't play a single home playoff game in the COVID-19 2020, yet politicians were quick to claim them. The team still "belonged" to Tampa, despite playing thousands of miles away.
If a Rays team splitting time with Montreal won the World Series, they would still contribute to Champa Bay. They can play 40 games or 4. It doesn't matter to politicians. They are rarely seen at games anyway for more than political appearances.
I have always estimated that 50% of people are baseball fans. 50% of City Council, 50% of the County Commissioners, and 50% of other legislators are baseball fans. A small percentage of that 50% are hardcore fans, most are casual. The non-baseball fan segment are looking at political decisions from a non-fan perspective. They are looking at costs and benefits.
I have outlined the benefit, now let's look at the cost.
The Rays don't want to pay for a stadium. They have balked whenever asked about cost. They claim "they don't want to start in the red" in a new home. They want to increase their revenue while paying the same cost for a building that they pay now. From their business perspective, that makes sense.
So the Rays devised a plan that will only cost two cities $300-500 million each to reap the benefits of claiming a winning team in their regional marketing material. Tampa politicians may balk at a billion dollar cost, but half of that might be acceptable if Visit Tampa Bay and other local tourist groups can mention the team in their pitches to people looking to visit and businesses looking for new home.
The alternative is Rays move and Tampa has only the Lightning, Buccaneers, and Rowdies to claim as part of Champa Bay. Which is not a bad situation to be in, but in the mind of a politicians, the more winners they can rub elbows with, the better. Even if the voters have to pay the cost.
Of course, if the Rays move and the Yankees get back on track, the Tampa mayor can claim the Yankees.
(Spring Training has always been insurance from a political marketing perspective. If the Rays perform poorly, Tampa, Clearwater, Dunedin, and Bradenton can claim to be the Spring Home of the Yankees, Phillies, Blue Jays, and Pirates, respectively. If the Rays do well, those cities and towns tie their wagon to the regional team.)
Finally getting my thoughts down about the Rays Sister City presentation at the Cafe Con Tampa meeting at Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa on October 1, 2021. This may be a long read, so you are warned. Feel free to screenshot, and use an image, but like the issue itself, my thoughts are best understood in full context.
In attendance were business leaders, politicians, fans, and media. I recognized Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times and JP Peterson of his radio show. There was also Spectrum News and other television networks. The MC of the event was Del Acosta.
I liked how Brian said this issue is not ideal for discussing on social media or in sound bytes. I agreed with that 100%. It is complicated. I have been writing about it for years.
The following is my perception and an attempt to take apart the Rays Sister City argument. For those new to my work, I have been a loud opponent of the Rays Sister City plan since Day 1.
Talking to Their Target
There are three stakeholders in the Rays stadium saga: politicians, business leaders, and fans.
Friday's presentation was for business leaders and politicians. City council members, lobbyists, lawyers, and prominent business leaders were in attendance. The presentation was geared to them. It was slick, shined, and practiced. Auld spoke about revenue streams, costs and the potential for increased business relationships and tourism. Among the supporters of the idea was Richard Gonzmart of the Colombia Restaurant Group, who added the potential for flights from Tampa to Montreal.
(If you don't know who Richard Gonzmart is, he is a BIG DEAL. Click for is his bio. That the Rays have him in their corner supporting the Montreal plan is a significant win for them.)
Many business leaders don't care about baseball games. They don't care about wins or losses on the emotional level. They don't wear Rays hats to sports bars, or bring their families for a night out at the ballpark. The only reason they go to games is to hobknob and make deals in luxury boxes. They care about how partnering with the team can make them more money.
Politicians also don't care about wins and losses on an emotional level. They are also not going to games for recreation. They care about the image of the city. Champa Bay is a huge hook to hang their marketing and sales pitch on. It doesn't matter if the team plays one or 100 games in Tampa Bay. If they are champions and the name "Tampa Bay" is attached, politicians will attach their efforts to it.
So if the business leaders are on board because they see dollars, and the politicians are on board because the Rays are asking for less money and the team might make the area more attractive, then where does that leave the fans?
If there was a popular referendum on the Sister City plan, my guess is that it would fail spectacularly. But the Rays don't need a vote because they aren't a government entity, even if by their name they do represent the Tampa Bay region. They can do whatever they can afford. That's important to remember.
The Rays also don't understand how fans think. Under the Sister City plan, the Rays want the same amount of fans who go to 81 games in Tampa Bay to go to 40 games. Increasing attendance isn't done by decreasing games, it's done by increasing fans.
(And don't get me started on Brian Auld's mention that people travel all summer and would rather go to North Carolina than a baseball game in St. Pete. Or that any significant amount of fans will travel to Montreal to see the Rays. That just shows who the presentation is geared for. Hint: not the regular fan.)
As proven by the harsh reaction to the Sister City sign the Rays planned to put in the outfield during the playoffs, the fanbase will react negatively to the idea of losing games to Montreal. Especially if all Tampa Bay gets is the beginning of the season - the Rays typically lowest attended and watched games.
I have no doubt season ticket sales will drop. If corporations buy seats, few Rays fans will take their company's tickets. The negative feeling of betrayal may possibly negate the increased revenue of a new stadium, making a new stadium worthless to the Rays and a financial burden on the City of Tampa.
The Rays have proven to be poor at getting the Tampa Bay area excited about Rays baseball. Notice how few gigantic banners support the Rays versus how many support the Lightning or Bucs. It will take a herculean marketing effort to get fans excited in a team after taking 40 games from them. The fanbase does not buy that the Sister City plan is the only way to keep baseball in Tampa Bay. Not with NHL, NFL, four spring training teams, four minor league teams, soccer, and a successful Major League team already in the area. No one believes the Rays are not profitable. Billionaires don't continue to own assets that lose money.
Loans and Leases
Brian Auld was asked what will prevent Stu Sternberg from selling the team and the team being eventually moved to Montreal fulltime. According to Brian, there will be an lock-tight agreement between the Rays and the City of Tampa that will prevent the team from moving.
Of course, the last time Stu Sternberg faced a legal agreement that mandated his location, he went behind everyone's back and negotiated for a move, albeit partial. Legal agreements are only as good as their enforcement and Stu Sternberg has shown he doesn't care about agreements with our region. There is nothing preventing him from selling in 2032 to the Montreal group. Then what happens?
I do believe Brian Auld, Rafaela Fink, and other Rays front office folks love Tampa Bay. I do believe they enjoy living here and enjoy being part of our community. However, I also believe Stu Sternberg does not care about this community one bit. Living here is temporary for him and once he sells the team, he is gone. He has done nothing for this community - more on that later.
Brian Auld also mentioned the Rays don't want to be in the red moving into a new home. This means they don't want to pay a mortgage - they claim this will hurt the on the field product. But shouldn't a new stadium bring in increased income? If the Rays can't maintain their same payroll and use the new park revenue to pay off the ballpark, that's not our problem. That's theirs. Again, they should be able to build more relationships with local businesses and fans. But their behavior over the years has poisoned that water. They don't see their failure to drum up corporate support in 2018 as their fault, they see it as the fault of the region. Then why don't similar sized markets have the same problem?
Yes, they will have to take out a loan. Yes, they can't leverage the value of the team to buy a stadium. But there is an expected revenue gain from new stadium ticket sales - both corporate and individual - as well as many other revenue streams that open with a new stadium. They can also steal advertisers from the Yankees and their organization.
(No one has yet mentioned how that relationship will work. If they move to Ybor, the Rays will essentially be in the Yankees market. They will have to negotiate for the Tarpons lost revenue. Perhaps the Rays know negotiating with the Yankees will not be cheap.)
Maybe the Rays don't think these streams will be enough. Maybe Stu Sternberg should open his own wallet. Maybe he is not as rich as we think.
The Stu Sternberg Perception Gap
During the presentation, Brian Auld mentioned how good of a boss Stu Sternberg is. He mentioned how Sternberg empowers his employees and encourages outside-the-box decision making. Auld said Sternberg allows the Rays to support movements and social issues and allows employees to get involved in their community. These are all good things.
But the Rays don't understand - or don't care - how Stu Sternberg is perceived by the fanbase. I can't speak for the politicians or business leaders, but the fanbase does not like Stu Sternberg. "Screw Stu", "Sell the Team", and "StuSux" are common refrains. Sternberg is often referred to as one of the worst owners in sports. I personally have written about his bad image for over 10 years. He is not customer friendly and his faux pas have added up. The fanbase thinks of him as a carpetbagging, New York investor who has no interest in Tampa Bay other than to make money and not spend his own.
If the Rays want the fans to have an open mind on the Sister City Plan, Stu Sternberg - not the Rays - needs to fix his perception. Because right now, he is not trusted nor liked. While Jeff Vinik sets an extraordinary high bar for a local sports owner, Stu Sternberg doesn't even clear the lowest bar. The Steinbrenners do more for Tampa Bay than Stu Sternberg.
The Partial Market Argument
If you are looking for a summary, here it is: the Rays goal is to create a Top 10 market by combining two mid-sized markets. They claim Tampa Bay, in its current state, is not capable of supporting Major League Baseball. We are too spread out, we lack major corporations, and our per capita income is too low. All of these are true.
We have also voted down transportation initiatives, protested against increased density, and although small to mid-sized companies are moving here, no major corporation has decided to call Tampa home.
They claim that by adding the power of the Montreal market, the Rays will be able to compete regularly with the Red Sox and Yankees. But don't they already do that now? Their only reason to add a complete additional market is to make more money. An additional TV deal, an additional radio deal, and an additional fanbase. Yes, a combined market would have a better chance of signing Wander Franco to a 20-year, billion dollar contract. But it is not needed. What is needed is a centralized stadium and a monopoly of baseball interest. The Rays need to be the only baseball option in Tampa Bay. When I was tracking regularly, the Rays only accounted for 50% of total baseball tickets sold in Tampa Bay. 50% of ticket sales went to local spring training and local Minor League Baseball. A Major League team cannot succeed with this level of competition. Especially if it plays in a bad location.
I would also like to see how the Rays rated all available markets. Why Montreal? What makes Montreal a part-time market? Does MLB think it is unable to sustain a full-time team? How do the Rays and MLB rate other markets?
Why not look to the east to the biggest US market without any baseball? Orlando is completely untapped. Rays fans might not mind splitting the team with a city an hour away. Granted, that would mean only one TV deal. But expanding to the Orlando market would add 2 million people to the Rays fan pool. Outside of a few exhibitions at Disney in 2008, the Rays have completely neglected Orlando.
Speaking of TV, Auld's reference to pandemic ratings as evidence fans will watch no matter where the team plays is incredibly unfair. The Rays, Lightning, and Bucs represented Tampa Bay in 2020. We were all in it together, remember? The best thing fans could do was watch as their favorite teams played in "bubbles". Watching sports was a reprieve from the drama of COVID-19. But when the Montreal Rays play on TV, Tampa fans can't attend those games because an ownership group looking for more revenue moved them from our city, not because of a public health crisis. Huge difference.
Brian Auld mentioned the Rays would like to have 35,000 tickets sold a night. That was the 2019 average of the Houston Astros, who play in a metropolitan area of 6.5 million, or 3.5 million more than Tampa Bay.
I like to compare Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a similar sized metro area with three major sports teams. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates drew nearly 2.5 million fans (2.498). They drew over 35k thirty times. 35,000 times 81 is 2,835,000 fans per year. In 2019, an attendance of 2.8 million would be 10th in Major League Baseball. If that's their goal, that is impossible. There are few untapped metropolitan areas that will get the Rays to that goal.
In 2017, I interviewed Brian Auld for this website. He said the Rays goal was league average. In 2019, league average per game was 28,355. That's 2,296,796 for the season. The Washington Nationals were closest to the average in 2019 with 2,259,781 tickets sold.
My conclusion was with "a new stadium closer to the center of Tampa Bay’s population, the Rays may be able to sustain or exceed the average small-market attendance. That, along with a new TV contract, would help with revenue and in turn, aid payroll, which may add to talent depth, and possibly equal more wins making the Rays more long-term competitive."
But as mentioned, the Rays goal is not average among small to mid-sized markets. They want to be a Top 10 market by combining the power of the Tampa Bay and Montreal market. Again, they want the same amount of fans to condense their buying habits in half the time. Tampa Bay's 3 million people and Montreal's 4.2 million people does turn the Rays into a large market, if the fans cooperate, which I don't think will happen.
(Personal note, my birthday is in September. If the Rays do the beginning of the season in Tampa and the second half in Montreal, I will never again be able to go to a local ballgame on my birthday. Something I have done for over 30 years. I can't move my birthday to the beginning of the season. I am sure I am not the only one.)
Opening the Pandora's Box of Relocation
If the Rays succeed in splitting their season between Tampa and Montreal, what is preventing Major League Baseball from splitting other cities? What is preventing them from pairing up expansion markets and making a Portland/Nashville team or a Vegas/Charlotte team?
The Rays are often imitated. The Sister City idea sets a very bad precedent for sports geography. If the Rays can get out of having to try harder to make one market work, then why can't other teams move? If they can combine markets for extra revenue, why can't other teams in similar sized markets? Fans and the record books will be confused with the fluidity when other teams will start moving. Imagine the excitement when the Nashville/Pittsburgh Music Pirates play the Vegas/Cleveland Desert Guardians in a World Series that won't be local to half the applicable fanbases.
MLB needs to nip this stupid idea in the bud now before its gets even more stupid.
What Can Fans Do?
The Rays discussion at Cafe con Tampa was insightful not only to get the Rays perspective, but also to show who supports the effort. For example, I mentioned Richard Gonzmart as someone already excited to work with the Sister City plan. Gonzmart owns the Colombia and Ulele. Rays fans could boycott these restaurants or protest outside of them. If the Rays can't be convinced to drop their support for the Sister City plan, perhaps their business partners could be.
Rays fans also need to be seen. Look up these social meetings for Rays appearances. Spread the word, come in with several questions, and ask one or two. Also meet the movers and shakers. Meet Brian Auld and the Rays front office personnel. Do not give a speech that doesn't end with a question. Force the Rays to engage the fans. Be civil and be seen. The more Rays fans are seen asking the Rays tough questions, the more people will see Rays fans standing up for Major League Baseball in the area.
I have been writing about baseball in this area for over a decade. MLB can succeed here if given a chance. The Rays need to either give it a chance or leave completely.