Opinion by Scott Wagman: How to Keep the Rays in Tampa Bay

10:22 AM, Aug 12, 2013   |    comments
An aerial view of Tropicana Field
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The following is a column written by St. Petersburg businessman and former mayoral candidate Scott Wagman concerning his ideas for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.  10 News makes no endorsement by publishing the column:

Existing status: The Rays are and have been playing top tier, contending baseball for several years. They are doing so with an extremely low payroll, a lack of star talent and demoralizing low attendance. The attendance at games is so low, that the Rays consistently rank next to last or last every year.

The Rays, while cash flow positive, are hindered from optimizing revenue due to several factors including low gate revenue from poor attendance. They also are revenue limited by a very poor concession contract, a lack of corporate sponsors and unattractive luxury suites which fail in revenue generation due to poor design, sight lines and amenities as well as the previously mentioned lack of corporate support.

Tropicana Field is now reaching a point where major building systems repair and replacement is looming, including needing a new fabric roof covering, air conditioning replacements and electrical and plumbing work.

Political status, past and present:  Professional sports stadiums of all levels and forms are political "footballs" that are seldom conceived of and built solely on financial terms. Community pride, legacy issues and an emotional belief in the economic efficacy of having a sports team in ones city often drive the strategy of attracting and then retaining a franchise in an area.

With an amazing community gamble by a naive but well intentioned City Council, St.Petersburg moved forward with the construction of a low level quality, but climate controlled domed stadium without the benefit of a guaranteed tenant as well as without a community vote. The Dome opened with limited events and part time use as a hockey arena.

Eventually, helped by the efforts of a hard nosed Tampa businessman, the "Florida Suncoast Dome" had a baseball team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Devil Rays were a sad sack gang of journeymen losers until the team was bought by a financially strong team of New York financiers who brought in a new group of management both in the front office and on field.  This new leadership quickly turned the fortunes of the team around, first by symbolically changing the name to the Tampa Bay Rays, dropping the accursed "Devil". Then, an amazing performance by the front office and development personnel turned the Rays into a nationally heralded winner.

With this turnaround in play, but with a continued deterioration in attendance and stadium based cash flow, questions about the teams future in St.Petersburg and Tampa Bay have grown louder and now play a significant role in any political election held in the region.

The issues: The Rays ownership has been playing the classic Clash song "Should I stay or should I go?" for several years now. The threat of moving the team, either physically or by league contraction, has been thrown about by all baseball parties up to and including a frustrated baseball Commissioner. The goal has been to muscle the team landlord, the City of St.Petersburg, to give up its right to force the team to actually play baseball through the 2027 season.

The team believes that St.Petersburg is just incapable of mustering the kind of attendance the team needs to generate the funds to buy better players. Hillsborough County/Tampa residents complain about the difficult drive to Tropicana Field and south St.Petersburg residents are in a lesser demographic that is problematic to attending.

In short, the team and certainly Tampa civic boosters, believes that a move to Tampa, preferably downtown, is the only way to increase attendance to the 25-30,000 per game average level needed to succeed.

The case for Tampa: It is this authors position that the Ray's future and the future of Tampa Bay baseball lies in Tampa.

The people of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County took a big swing and hit it out of the park when they landed the Rays. Much analysis has been written regarding the financial impact or lack  thereof  that the team has on St.Petersburg and the region, but that is not the focus of this essay. I believe that the Rays bring value to the entire region in many quantifiable and some more esoteric ways, but they are worth trying to keep and strengthen. Keeping something good is easier that starting from scratch.

In the big picture, expediting a move of the Rays to Tampa can be done at a reasonable cost if a creative, new model of baseball experience is explored that accounts for new patterns of media and entertainment consumption.

First, Tampa is more central to the population of the region. While a Tampa location will lose some St.Petersburg/Pinellas attendees, this will be more that made up by Hillsborough/Polk and other county residents.

Second, a new stadium location breaks the poor concession contract allowing the Rays to negotiate a more lucrative one.

Third, Tampa has a more significant corporate presence including larger locally owned as well as public company numbers.

Fourth, there is just more investment money available within Tampa society, companies and political leaders that will be critical in making a move viable.

Fifth and finally, the new stadium itself can be a watershed event in stadium design for baseball, especially in second tier cities like Tampa, that lack the legacy and identity of teams based in like New York, Boston or Chicago.

The money: Central to the issue of moving the team and location is money. The standard MLB requirement now is that the team needs a retractable roof, 34,000 seat, air conditioned stadium that will cost $600-700 million dollars. Never mind what entity or person is going to pay what amount.

I call for a re-examination of the stadium issue. The failure of the new Marlins stadium in Miami, where politicians are going to jail over the deal will give any sane politician pause.

The fact is, modern stadiums, many of which will be deemed obsolete in 25 years, cost far too much in society dollars to justify. Only Jerry Jones in Texas obviated the argument by paying for Cowboy Stadium himself.

A new stadium in Tampa for the Rays will only be built with a combination of team, tax and tourist dollars.   I believe that a reasonable cost for a state of the art, fun to attend stadium in Tampa is no more than $400 million.   

To attain that lower level, two fundamental things need to be changed. One, lower the amount of seats to  23-28,000 and two eliminate the retractable roof.

The rationale: Tampa Bay's television market is strong, ranking #7 or 8 depending on the day. 50-70 inch HDTVs have made the viewing experience exceptional with instant replay, your own bathroom, cheap beer and food a fine way to cheer on our Rays. Tampa Bay residents do support the Rays, but the discretionary entertainment dollar just isn't there to support 34,000 fans actually attending 81 games in person.

Filling 23-28,000 seats is much more attainable and would allow a concurrent reduction in certain facilities, building size and parking to reduce construction costs.

Quality luxury suites would sell better with a disproportionate increase in revenue to the team. More comfortable seats with better legroom would also be an attraction.

The major construction cost reduction would come from the elimination of the retractable roof. The absurdity of watching summer baseball in Florida is known by any owner of a car with a convertible roof or sunroof. The heat, UV exposure and rain in June, July, August and September make opening the roof a joke. A very expensive one.  In many other big league cities the open roof works, but failing to recognize the difference of Florida reflects a hubris that will be self defeating at a ridiculous cost. Now, I suspect that photochromic panels could be installed in a flexible fixed roof that could allow some sun in while eliminating the fan baking experience. MLB needs to get real here.

Financially, the citizens of St.Petersburg deserve to be compensated, handsomely, for allowing the Rays to actually move to Tampa. The Rays shouldn't have to pay to look at Tampa as MLB allows teams to pay to Japanese teams for the right to negotiate with a player, but that hypocrisy isn't relevant, just funny.   I don't have a specific number in mind but it should be between $20-40 million dollars over some period of time.  Then, after the new stadium is built, St.Petersburg and Pinellas County have 85 acres, some brownfield, to put back on the tax rolls after being sold to a developer(s).  This is no small matter when looked at over 25-50 years.The Rays first shot at a financial commitment to a new stadium on St.Petersburg's waterfront was $150 million. Tampa/Hillsborough's request should be $250 million. Also, allowing spring training baseball to return someday to a renovated Al Lang field should be on the table.

Needing to raise $150 million from other sources should be very doable with a coordinated,     strong leadership team of business leaders, political leaders and community leaders from both sides of the Bay.

With the Rays winning, attendance up, sponsorship and advertising dollars flowing, the Rays ownership over the next decade will have a dynamic franchise that is still in the early stages of maturity and a value north of $850 million. Not a bad return from their investment in any book.

Finally, acquiring the Rays franchise was a watershed event not only for St.Petersburg, but also Tampa Bay. We are all stakeholders in this business that has the potential to further the financial and cultural growth of the region. We need a tough negotiating team with representatives from both sides of the bay to hammer out a deal that will cost the public a reasonable amount to make the move happen.  

Scott K. Wagman
St. Petersburg, Florida

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