Friday, March 31, 2017

The Tampa Bay Times' Annual Opening Day Frustratitorial

The Times' editorial board published its annual Opening Day editorial, complaining about the slow pace of the Stadium Saga for an eighth running. The gist is pretty much the same every year, but the specific fears have evolved:
  • 2014 - 2016: Please just hurry up and do something!
  • 2012 - 2013: The Marlins have a new stadium!!
  • 2010 - 2011: St. Pete losing leverage in negotiations
The opening graf lays out what is likely an overly-aggressive timeline for the Rays & local politicians...but give them credit for optimism!
The Tampa Bay Rays open their 20th season Sunday in sold-out Tropicana Field with new turf, new concessions (a $13 grilled cheese burger!?), new players — and a familiar discussion about prospects for a new stadium. By Opening Day in 2018, there should be a site selected for the next Rays ballpark and a general agreement on how to pay for it. The continuing uncertainty is unhealthy for the Rays and for a region that is enjoying a growth spurt but cannot afford to lose major-league baseball.
Of course, it isn't finding a site that's the biggest challenge; it's the financing and lack of appetite for public subsidies.

That's unlikely to change in the next 12 months.  But at least the Times isn't contributing as much to MLB's fearmongering as it used to back earlier in the decade
Although, it's good to see they're not afraid to recycle a lede:
The sellout crowd at the Tampa Bay Rays' 14th season opener tonight at Tropicana Field will find new food choices, a new playing surface and plenty of new players. What the franchise needs to ensure its long-term future in the region is a serious conversation about a new stadium.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Forbes' Billionaires List: Where are Tampa Bay's Franchise Owners?

The latest Forbes list of billionaires came out last week, and 51 Floridians made the list this year.

That included Heat owner Mickey Arison, Jags owner Shahid Kahn, and some guy named Michael Jordan...but surprising to some, nobody from the Glazer family.  And both Jeff Vinik and Stu Sternberg have a ways to go still.

Source: Forbes, Florida Trend

I was recently asked on a radio show, hosted by former Congressman David Jolly and my former WTSP colleague Preston Rudie, if billionaire sports owners were the "new norm" and how that might affect the sports landscape.

My answer was that we'd likely see more Steve Ballmer's buying teams, but it doesn't mean they'll be willing to lose money on them. 

A $5 million contract may be monopoly money to most of these billionaires, but realize that most of them got rich by being shrewd businessmen & businesswomen.  And they don't like running businesses at a loss.

So while Tampa Bay is hoping someday for next Mark Cuban - a rich guy who doesn't seem to care as much about the bottom line as he does winning - the reality is, the best any city should hope for is more Jeff Viniks: owners who are shrewd enough to run their franchises as a loss leader, so they can advance their other business interests (real estate) while hopefully (most years) enjoying success on-the-field/ice/court as icing on the cake.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What's a New Stadium Really Worth to Rays?

Of all the fallout included in Sunday's post, "New Non-News on Rays' Stadium Location Search...and What Comes Next," the one piece of writing I couldn't quite cram in came at the bottom of John Romano's column.

He gets around to the real issue in the Stadium Saga, how the heck are the Rays going to afford a new stadium without taxpayers making it rain millions on them?

It's a well-covered issue on this blog, including a 2012 post that ironically came after a John Romano column proclaiming the Rays "are as good as gone."  I asked, "how many more fans are needed to warrant the investment (in a new ballpark)":
Thirty-thousand?  That would bump the Rays up to 15th out of 30 teams and would mean an extra 870,000 fans a year.  But 30,000/game seems unsustainable given the fact that the Marlins only drew 27,400 in their first season and playoff teams like Cincinnati and Baltimore only drew 28,978 and 26,610, respectively, this year despite their modern stadiums.

Twenty-five thousand?  That would bump the Rays up to 24th in the league in attendance and mean 465,000 more fans a year.  But there's a big question if the Marlins could draw that many next year or if the Rays - by moving from a county with 900,000 residents to a county with 1.1 million residents could either.

Twenty-three thousand?  Is it worth $500-600 million for 303,000 fans a year?  If the ticket average is $25, that's $7.5 million a year for the Rays.  Add parking and concessions and maybe it's $15 million a year for the Rays.  Might just be cheaper for Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties to hand the team an annual tax credit.
Romano's 2017 take on the same issue questions how much revenue the team would need to make a real investment in a new ballpark:
For the Rays, this has always been a mathematics question. If they can boost their revenues $15 million a year in a downtown Tampa location, then they would invest a certain amount in construction. If a new stadium on the Trop site only boosts their revenues $5 million a year, then one might assume their investment would not be as high.

The difference at the Trop site is there is an abundance of property that does not have to be purchased, and the Rays currently hold the development rights through their stadium use agreement.

Those rights could go a long way toward deferring the team's costs, and they would allow the Rays to be partners in whatever development goes up around the stadium.

This doesn't mean a site in downtown Tampa won't suddenly become available at a better asking price, but the odds seem a lot less likely than a week ago.

What's now clear is that St. Pete is still a viable location, and that Hillsborough voices are less optimistic than in the past. All of which makes the Trop site seem a lot more attractive today.
Of course, readers of this blog knew Pinellas always had viable locations, since its got the most available tax money. And, if we are to learn anything from Atlanta, it's that MLB teams don't care quite as much about ballpark location if they can make a bundle of profit on real estate and ancillary development.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

New Non-News on Rays' Stadium Location Search...and What Comes Next

As the dust settles on the non-news news that the Rays' top choices for a new ballpark location are not available and Stu Sternberg's diagnosis that the team's future in Tampa Bay is very much "unknown," it's a good time to remind Shadow of the Stadium readers that you already knew all this from years of posts on this site.

You knew there was not going to be a "pitch-perfect" stadium location anywhere; you knew the "great" prospects around Ybor City and Channelside were deeply flawed; and there was never an easy solution to any of the challenges the Rays have identified.

But as the news cycle churns, Times' columnist John Romano echoed those sentiments this week, writing Sternberg's comments were more or less "inevitable":
If you're a realist, you understand that this was never going to be a pretty process. It involves too much money, too many government layers and far too many variables when it comes to finding suitable land in a market that is close to being built-out.
But what I disagree with Romano on, is his assertion that Sternberg's comments were "significant."  They simply are not significant, and they are simply not news.

Why the comments were not significant

Sternberg's brief quotes in Marc Topkin's original Times article were either one of two things:
  1. Passing comments from an owner increasingly-frustrated taxpayers aren't tripping over themselves to hand over land and build the team a stadium.
  2. Or, calculated comments meant to further distract & divert attention from the team's biggest challenge, as identified by Shadow of the Stadium since 2010: land isn't the biggest problem in the Stadium Saga; funding is.
I'm inclined to give Sternberg the benefit of the doubt, and believe it was Option No. 1.  But another thing readers of this blog know is pro teams never let a good opportunity go to waste, and the Rays are no strangers to distracting the conversation from their impending problem of how to pay for a new stadium.

         WATCH: Why you shouldn't feel too bad for Rays

Field of Schemes elaborates on Sternberg's distraction/diversion strategy, one that was executed by so many other pro teams previously:
It’s not a sure strategy, but it’s certainly worked in the past, and it sure appears to be the endgame he’s preparing for — with the aid of the Tampa Bay Times, which assigned five people to work on this story and didn’t bother to quote a single person who wasn’t either a Rays official or a local politician in favor of building a new stadium. Oh, journalism.
Regardless of what Sternberg intended by his comments, the fact remains that this is just more of the status quo in the Stadium Saga.  No news to see here.

What Sternberg's comments actually accomplished

Well, we of course got a few days' worth of newspaper columns out of it, including the Times' Martin Fennelly penning this head-scratching paragraph: "Tampa Bay needs major league baseball. Major league baseball needs Tampa Bay."  I'm just not sure that's true.

But even more fired up were the area's sports talk hosts, who never miss an opportunity to wax poetic about the Rays' plight.  And that gets politicians fired up too.

Hillsborough County's stadium cheerleader-in-chief, Ken Hagan, suggested to the Times that Pinellas was to blame for dragging their feet years ago, then added he had concerns about the team's "ability to have a significant investment'' in the ballpark.

If Hagan didn't hate this blog so much, he would have known by now the public cost of a Rays stadium in Hillsborough County looks to be immense.  I mean, everyone else around the county - including a very hands-off Bob Buckhorn - seems to acknowledge it.

What Hagan's comments actually accomplished

If you really want to read into Hagan's epiphany about the actual cost of a stadium and pretend its news, here's John Romano's take on what it could indicate:
This could simply mean that the Rays are not willing and/or able to make a sizable contribution to the building of a stadium. It might mean Tampa and Hillsborough County officials recognize it will be difficult to persuade taxpayers to pony up as much money as the Rays expected.

It might mean Hagan, as the point man for the Hillsborough effort, is already anticipating a Rays return to St. Petersburg, and he's beginning to assign blame ahead of time. It has not gone unnoticed that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has never made the Rays a top priority, which could be construed as a shrewd politician recognizing this deal was going to be difficult to pull off.
Buckhorn's pullback from the Stadium Saga was first noted here way back in 2013, when it was clear to me a controversial stadium standoff (coupled with the lack of funding) wasn't worth risking his political future.

But Hagan has only doubled down in recent years, suggesting taxpayers should open up their pockets to help the Rays move to Tampa, holding private meetings with the team and refusing to disclose details, then encouraging the county to start talking money with the team when St. Pete was under the impression the two sides of the bay would cooperate before the wound up in a bidding war.

Last week's comments were the first time he expressed much of any doubt in Tampa's ability to land the team.

So what happens next?

Well, the Rays aren't ready to do much of anything in the next few months, most likely because of the lack of political opportunity. A strong season or shift in Tallahassee priorities could change that.

But in the meantime, Pinellas remains light years ahead of where Hillsborough is in terms of courting the team.  Readers of this blog understand they've always been, simply because of funding.

Mayor Kriseman responded to Sternberg's comments with a short statement:
But one thing is for sure: Tampa and St. Pete are fully engaged in the tug-of-war the team has been seeking for nearly seven years.  St. Pete is already suggesting general revenue dollars could go to the Rays, on top of the increasingly-valuable development rights they're dangling in front of the team.

And at the end of the day, the Rays will end up not where they can pack the biggest crowd through the turnstiles...but where they can make the most money on land development and real estate, for that's what pro teams have learned can lift your franchise values over a billion dollars.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Looking at Spring Training & Rowdies Crowds

As you recover from a weekend full of Spring Training, the Grand Prix of St. Pete, the Valspar Championship, countless other Tampa-area sporting events...and oh yeah, March's a pair of sports business reads from the last week you shouldn't miss:
  1. Can Tampa Bay Support MLS?  Times' columnist John Romano echoes some of the concerns made by this blog about adding a fourth big-league team to a sports market already stretched very very thin.  He also wonders about that $150 million expansion price tag, on top of $80 million in supposedly-self-financed stadium renovations.
  2. Spring Training Attendance Down: Watchdog blogger Tom Rask is not impressed by the attendance numbers from the start of spring training.  Especially as the Blue Jays seek tens of millions of dollars from taxpayers to renovate & expand their Dunedin home.  Anecdotally, I've been able to get Tampa Yankees tickets pretty easily online at the last minute (despite $40 million in renovations this winter) and there have been a lot of empty seats seen in Florida stadiums during some recent telecasts.  Hmmmmm.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ken Hagan Does Not Like This Blog

Shadow of the Stadium's favorite Tampa-area stadium cheerleader, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, finally answered a few questions about his secret talks with the Tampa Bay Rays (and other topics).

Check out the sometimes-uncomfortable video and fact-checking here.

Hagan has been ignoring my interview requests for years now, and I'm sure this story won't improve the relationship.  But public "servants" need to answer to the public.  And as a watchdog, these were important questions that needed answering.

Highlights include:
  • Arguing why his flip-flopping on public funds for a new Rays stadium wasn't a flip-flop;
  • Contending that raising the hotel tax (and possibly rental car tax) doesn't count as raising taxes;
  • Acknowledging he shouldn't be conducting county business on his personal cell phone;
  • Blowing off a question about all the other things bed tax revenues could pay for, other than stadiums.
So again, check out lots of material on here.  The full story airs tonight at 11pm on 10News, Tampa Bay's CBS.

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