Tampa Bay Rays Stadium News: team talks future with Hillsborough commissioners

7:11 PM, Jan 24, 2013   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida --  If Stu Sternberg is to be taken at his word, the Tampa Bay Rays are in danger of relocation or contraction if the team's attendance problems aren't addressed soon.

"Major League Baseball at this point doesn't believe any more in the Tampa Bay area," Sternberg, the Rays' principal owner, said Thursday morning in his first appearance before Hillsborough County Commissioners.

The Rays, who play in the league's only remaining fixed-dome stadium near Downtown St. Pete, have sunk to the bottom of the league's attendance standings despite unprecedented success on the field.

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After the hour-long commission meeting, 10 News asked Sternberg about the comments from the league.  While he wouldn't specify who made comments to him, he said it was coming from other owners as well as commissioner Bud Selig.

"There was threat of con-... consolidation a number of years ago," Sternberg said of Major League Baseball, seemingly stopping himself from using the word "contraction."

Many industry experts believe television contracts and the players' association would prohibit the league from ever contracting teams, but the threat often presents itself when teams search for new stadiums.

When asked if consolidation was a legitimate concern again, Sternberg acknowledged, "it's not really on the front burner by any stretch...but it's always an option."

The public meeting took place despite threats from the city of St. Petersburg about interference with its existing stadium contract, which runs through 2027.  It took approval and a warning from Hillsborough's county attorney to make the meeting happen.

Commission chair Ken Hagan campaigned in 2010 on promises to break the stadium stalemate, but little has changed in the two-plus years since.  Thursday's meeting was - what he hopes - the first step toward getting the ball rolling.

"Too much is at stake to simply put our head in the sand," Hagan said, referencing St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster, who has maintained the Rays need to abide by their contract.

"We've known there are problems with Tropicana Field - with that location," Hagan continued, "since opening pitch in 1998."

Foster told 10 News that the stalemate is because Sternberg has ignored his offers to sit down and discuss things like the recently-proposed stadium at Carillon, near the Howard Frankland Bridge.

"The people of my city have already paid for 15 more seasons," Foster said.  "They're owed 1,215 more regular-season home games, bought & paid for."

Sternberg didn't address specific locations, but hinted Pinellas County limited the team's potential to grow its ticket base since, "The bay is on one side of us and fish don't necessarily come to baseball games." 

That was as close as the Rays' owner got to implying a move to Tampa was necessary.

Sternberg also didn't mention possible compensation for St. Petersburg or how a stadium might be paid for. When asked how much the team might contribute, he said he didn't know.

When asked by Hagan if the Rays intend on fulfilling the obligations in their contract with St. Petersburg, Sternberg sent mixed messages.

"I intend to," he said in reference to honoring the contract that runs through 2027, "(but) I'd be surprised if that were the case."

Then, when commissioner Kevin Beckner asked about the importance of transit (i.e. light rail) to the team's future success, Sternberg got excited:

"Transit (is) the real difference-maker," Sternberg said. "It's a foregone conclusion: wherever we end up (with a new stadium)...there will be a (transit) stop there."

Sternberg has been campaigning for a new stadium for the better part of the seven-plus years he has owned the team.  In June 2010, he held a press conference expressing his frustrations and calling for a regional effort to advance the discussion.  But in the two-and-a-half years that followed, few real developments materialized.

Sternberg is also expected to attend next Tuesday's commission meeting in Pinellas County, where the Rays are expected to participate in a similar discussion.

While St. Petersburg elected officials are invited to the Pinellas County meeting, Mayor Foster says he does not plan on going. 

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

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