By now pretty much everyone is wise to the publicly-funded stadium scam. Teams threaten to leave, local and state politicians buckle, citizens pour their tax money into a new stadium, and only the team owner and their high-ranking employees see the benefits. And generations of taxpayers end up asking why are we paying for this? As more and more people stand up to this scam, teams try to find more and more ways to do it behind closed doors where they don’t get a say.
The Tampa Bay Rays have been on a stadium sojourn for almost their entire existence. Their attendance has basically always sucked, and they seemingly have been looking for a new solution since right after their expansion season. Many possibilities in Tampa were put forth, and then the Rays were the super geniuses who floated the idea of splitting the season between Tampa and Montreal, where they could hold two cities hostage to pay for two separate stadiums.
That seems to have, thankfully, fallen on the scrap heap, and god knows the precedent that might have set for anyone else. The Rays are back to trying to fix where they are, which means they’re back to a familiar playbook.
As the above story says, though the cover story is that Rays owner Stu Sternberg will kick in some $500 million, with the shell game of overruns and TIFs and other developments, it’s hard to know what the public will be asked to kick in themselves. And of course, the public won’t be getting anything back except the chance to watch baseball in a slightly nice place (though possibly without an actual seat) or to rent and shop in obscenely expensive places that are also owned by Sternberg. MLB teams aren’t just teams anymore, they’re real estate rackets.
To give you the Cliffs Notes version of why these never work for municipalities: new stadiums don’t create a host of new, long-standing jobs. They don’t lure any more tourists than a city already gets (and the Rays are highly dependent on visiting fans already), and all the revenues go back to the team and owner after various tax breaks for them go into it. This one would be no different.
There’s no there there
The other problem with this whole project is that it’s in the same location as The Trop, and it’s a location that the Tampa area has already roundly rejected. The Trop is extremely hard to get to and get back from, with basically only one bridge leading to the stadium. This only seeks to redevelop The Trop, not move it to somewhere people actually want to take the time to travel to. It’s still going to be across a bridge that will be way too crowded. There are only 258,000 people in St. Pete. They need Tampa residents to come across, and they just don’t.
Certainly, they can’t complain about the product. The Rays are consistently good and consistently produce stars through their system. Perhaps whatever fans are willing to make the trip are put off by knowing that it’s only a short amount of time before those stars are flogged for middle schoolers because it’s time to pay them more than a pittance. But Sternberg has used the low attendance as an excuse for that, and the cycle feeds itself. Perhaps that’s why he has such a hard-on for the redevelopment around the park, knowing that a stadium in St. Petersburg is always going to be a loser.
And it’s not as if there aren’t fans. The Rays actually rank middle of the pack when it comes to TV ratings. Their ratings are about on par with the Brewers, except the Brewers double them up in average attendance. While The Trop may look like a garage on TV or feel like that when you’re in it, if that garage were more central, more people would go to watch a good team, which the Rays usually are.
Maybe a new Rays stadium gets them a curiosity bump in attendance for a couple of years, like their expansion year when they averaged 30,000 or when they first got good around the 2008 World Series trip when they averaged 22,000. But clearly that hasn’t stuck, even with good teams. Maybe it’s the constant talk of relocation. Whatever it is, Rays fans have made it clear they don’t really want to go to St. Pete. And yet, they’re going to be asked to pay for a stadium they’ve already said they don’t want to go to. Same as it ever was.