At some point this was bound to happen: Today Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg told the Hillsborough County Commission that "Major League Baseball at this point no longer believes in the Tampa Bay area."
Sternberg was invited to speak to the county commission on the subject of the team's future -- a future partly controlled by St. Petersburg, where officials have insisted the Rays fulfill their Tropicana Field lease, which ends in 2027. The Rays have raised the idea of building a new facility somewhere else in the region and broached the issue of buying out the lease, options rejected by Mayor Bill Foster and crew.
Sternberg, showing a first bit of irritation at St. Pete's unwillingness to work with the team, said it was clear the future of the team wasn't as clear as St. Pete officials admit. Because the team does not draw well, it's subject to MLB revenue sharing (a sore subject among some other MLB team owners). A new ballpark would address the team's financial situation. From the Tampa Bay Times:
"That gap is growing,'' Sternberg told the Hillsborough County Commission. "Put yourself in their place. They look at the success, we have an exciting team, and then they see where the gate is. They don't care whether it's Clearwater, St. Petersburg or Tampa. They just know this as Tampa Bay.''
Sternberg would not speculate about what action baseball officials might take, or when. He did soften his statements at times, suggesting that a new stadium in the right location could keep the team in Tampa Bay.
His underlying message — that time is running short — struck a chord.
There are plenty of problems with Tropicana Field: it is not the most appealing facility, and only 600,000 people live within 30 miles of the ballpark. That puts Tampa Bay dead last in terms of potential audience and behind eight MiLB teams. And with the private sector failing to come up with a workable ballpark plan, the team is clearly looking to the government sector to lead.
“The Commissioner has had conversations with Stuart Sternberg and is disappointed with the current situation in the Tampa Bay market.
The status quo is simply not sustainable. The Rays have been a model organization, averaging nearly 92 wins per year since 2008 and participating in the Postseason three times, including their inaugural World Series in 2008.
Their .565 winning percentage over the last five years is second among all American League Clubs and third in all of Major League Baseball. Last year, the 30 Major League Clubs averaged nearly 2.5 million in total attendance; the Rays, who finished with a 90-72 record, drew 1,559,681, which ranked last in the game.
The Club is an eager contributor to worthy causes in the Tampa and St. Petersburg communities and takes pride in meeting the social responsibilities that come with being a Major League franchise. We are hopeful that the market will respond in kind to a Club that has done a marvelous job on and off the field.”
What comes next remains to be seen. There's already been a lot of talk about the Rays and the team's future in Tampa Bay, and we're suspecting there will be a whole lot more talk before anything tangible happens.
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