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Teamwork

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

In strictly business terms, the Tampa Bay Rays are a middling-sized firm. Figures from 2008 on the deadspin.com website indicate they’re in the $165-million to $170-million revenue range — about the size of companies such as Winter Park Construction in Maitland, Meyer Jabara Hotels in West Palm or Great Bay Distributors, a beer distributor in Largo. That would put the Rays somewhere about 115th on Trend’s list of the state’s biggest private companies.

If one of those companies decided it needs nicer offices or more warehouse space to better serve its customers and make more money, it would likely work out a deal with its landlord and relocate without much ado. It might even get some incentive money from the state or local government. Not too many people outside those companies, of course, pay much attention to whether Great Bay’s best route driver carelessly dropped a case of Michelob yesterday. Or if a Meyer Jabara hotel’s occupancy rate dipped slightly for a month.

And that, of course, is the difference between most companies and a baseball team. Rays’ fans are quite interested in who booted a double-play ball last night and the monthly arcs of Evan Longoria’s batting average. Likewise, the team’s pursuit of a new stadium in Tampa is arousing a lot more interest and passion in the area than would another firm’s relocation.

It’s very difficult for anyone to argue that the Rays are acting rashly in trying to move. Since buying the team five years ago from owners who had run both its baseball and business operations poorly, Stuart Sternberg and his local management team have done just about everything right. In a small market, they’ve put an entertaining, championship-caliber team on the field and a smart, likable manager in the dugout. They put millions into making Tropicana Field feel more like a baseball field and less like an enormous concrete basement. They’ve made the team among the most affordable in sports, offered free parking, allowed fans to bring in their own food and beverages and staged free concerts after games. They’ve been active all over the region philanthropically and in various civic ventures.

Fan-friendliness plus winning was supposed to solve the team’s attendance woes. It hasn’t, and the deadspin.com numbers — along with a well-considered, evenhanded report from a business group, the ABC Coalition — support Sternberg’s contention that the Rays need to get out of the Trop. The team now draws a big TV audience, and a few more fans are showing up at the games, but the Rays can’t even sell out a pivotal series against archrival Boston. Fans from Tampa seem perversely disinclined to cross the bay to see games during the week. Meanwhile, either there are too few citizens in St. Petersburg with enough money or the community just isn’t that interested in baseball.

Two years ago, the team floated the idea of a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Pete. Several aspects of the plan — a “sail” for a roof and not enough parking — were poorly considered. But instead of becoming the opening round in a negotiation, the plan flatlined — amid yawns and scoffs from the community. The Rays, understandably, began thinking they’d have a better chance in Tampa, closer to more people with more money. In June, Sternberg all but said the Rays needed to be in Tampa to keep playing in the area.

After the playoffs, and possibly another World Series appearance, the region will turn to the stadium issue in earnest. Money isn’t really an issue: If the Rays and the region decide they want each other enough, there’s enough private money, tax-increment financing and other public funding to build a stadium.

The real questions are, one, how important the team is to the area’s sense of self-worth — whether the Rays are just another business or something more.

And, two, whether Pinellas and Hillsborough counties can move beyond their traditional rivalry to keep the team in the region.

Traditionally, each county would rather see an economic prospect go to Georgia than locate in the other, but there have been signs in recent years that the two can work together. A regional transit planning group, TBARTA, has done some good work that reaches across political boundaries. The Tampa Bay Partnership is even engaged in a “super-regional” planning effort with Orlando economic developers. Without some kind of similar collaboration among the counties’ business and political communities, it’s a zero-sum game in which one county will lose, or in which both will lose.

Sternberg will need to be more forthcoming with his team’s finances: Miami has been left with a bad case of civic indigestion from its stadium deal with the Marlins after it learned that the team wasn’t quite the charity case it had made itself out to be. But ultimately, this landlord-tenant dispute ought to be resolved the way most are — by making the current landlord whole and making the tenant comfortable in his preferred location without giving away the store.

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