ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - It's been a quiet few months in the Rays stadium saga and it's not just because the team has been busy setting up off-season tee times. The ABC Coalition - the group tasked with finding the best way to keep the Rays in the area long-term - is taking its time crafting its final report.
With the Coalition cancelling its September meeting and postponing its October one, the most significant recent news item was the primary election in the St. Peter mayor's race. Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford are moving on to the Nov. 3 general election, and they're making a new baseball stadium one of the big election issues.
The mayoral hopefuls aren't the only ones studying the team's lease (it's actually a "use agreement") with St. Petersburg, and The Times had a well-researched article about the possibility of the team leaving town.
But it still seems like an incredible long shot given the legal implications, the fact that the Rays don't really hate Tampa Bay, and the possibility that Pinellas Co. will eventually build the team a new home in the Gateway area of St. Pete/Clearwater.
COULD THE RAYS LEAVE TOWN?
The use agreement says they've got to play in Tropicana Field until 2027. St. Pete won't have it paid off until 2016. Could the Rays leave town anytime soon? No.
But if the team ever broke the agreement, they'd probably have to pay financial restitution to the city - restitution that becomes a lot cheaper once the current bonds are paid off.
"Leases become more easily broken the closer to the end of their agreements," said sports business analyst Maury Brown, founder of BizofBaseball.com.
Brown points out the current situation in Phoenix, where a judge may help the NHL's bankrupt Coyotes leave town by paying damages to the city
But there also may not be a city ready to add a Major League Baseball franchise.
"The reality is, there isn't a market where a stadium could be at the ready," Brown said. "When it gets to the nitty-gritty (or relocation talk), as was the case with the Marlins in San Antonio, it rarely pencils out."
He also added that cities like Portland and Las Vegas are already considered television territories of current MLB teams, devastating their chances at landing an MLB franchise.
WOULD THE RAYS LEAVE TOWN?
Despite the long odds of the Rays finding a new home, you can still expect the relocation talk to continue. It's the only way for the team to gain leverage while it's mired in the middle of a 30-year Downtown St. Pete lease. The more leverage, the more taxpayer dollars contributed toward a new stadium.
"The specter of relocation, often times fueled by the media, plays a large part in the passage of public funding for stadiums." said Brown. "Relocation talk almost always seem to scare politicians and fans in the home market into thinking that their team could actually leave."
Taxpayers are paying most of the $645 million for a new Marlins home in Miami. Taxpayers paid 97% of the $600-plus million to lure the Nationals from Montreal. Taxpayers are paying all of the $75M for a new Red Sox spring training home near Fort Myers.
The Rays are hoping taxpayers in Tampa Bay will do the same.
But would they actually call a bluff if local politicians don't bend over backward for them?
Tampa Bay is one of the bigger metropolitan areas in the U.S. and, as the Marlins found out while exploring San Antonio, smaller cities just can't support MLB.
SHOULD THE RAYS LEAVE TOWN?
In short, no.
We're talking about a team on its way to a second consecutive winning season; a team that's extended its fan base to distant cities like Naples and Orlando; and a team that's turning a big-time profit for its owners.
Those owners, no doubt, could make more money in a new stadium closer to the population center of Tampa Bay....provided they aren't the ones paying for it. That's why they'll remind us that the Trop is no Taj Mahal. And, if necessary, they'll drop a hint too that other teams have relocated over stadium issues.
But the Rays don't want to leave this gold mine. They just want to "move on up" like George and Weezy to a better home in a better part of town.
"If there was a lesson to be learned these past few years is that patience is paramount in reaching stadium deals," said Brown. "Whether it was the Twins or the Marlins, in each case, a decade's worth of efforts finally paid off in stadium funding."
In the end, the Rays will likely get what they're looking for - a beautiful, state-of-the-art stadium. And the only big question that remains isn't where or when the park will be built - it's how much of it will be financed by the team and how much will be financed by the public.
Follow 10 Connects reporter Noah Pransky on Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky or Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky.
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