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Rays owner Stuart Sternberg: “This is untenable as a model going forward.”

Oct 5, 2011, 11:33 AM EDT

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game 3

After yesterday’s loss to the Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg held court and he brought the noise regarding the Rays’ future. The extremely pessimistic and damn nigh depressing noise.

The upshot: the Rays keep winning but attendance goes down. About how the model that he and everyone believed in — win games, get fans, get money — just doesn’t apply in St. Petersburg, and that because of it, there is little hope for the future of the Rays. You often hear owners of small market teams talking about the “challenges” they face, but caught after yesterday’s loss, Sternberg was far more frank than we are used to hearing:

“I am frustrated this year. We’ve replicated last year [on the field] and our attendance numbers were down 15 percent and our ratings were down. The rubber has got to meet the road at some point here. When you go through the season, you control your own destiny, if you win out. We’re getting to the point where we don’t control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward.

“”When you’re sitting here at this point and you lost by a run, you know another X dollars might have changed things. Three or five million wouldn’t have changed things necessarily but 15 to 30 might have. That’s where we were. And for the foreseeable future that’s what we’ve got … Whatever you want to say, there are 29 other teams passing us like we’re going in reverse right now. Except on the field. And at some point that changes.”

Which stinks. But the fact is, Sternberg bought the Rays fully-aware of the challenges of drawing fans in St. Petersburg, fully-aware of the terms of the stadium lease which ties his team to Tropicana Field and fully-aware of how challenging getting public funding for a ballpark is in this economy.  It’s a bad situation, yes, and I feel bad for Rays fans, but Sternberg needs to get past his griping stage about this and try to do something about the team’s situation.

What can he do?  Well, if it’s truly hopeless, he can sell.  If he doesn’t want to sell for some reason he can try to negotiate some sort of buyout of the lease with St. Petereburg and look into privately-funded stadium projects either in the Tampa Bay area or elsewhere.  What he can only do for so long, it seems to me, is to (a) continue to state the bleedin’ obvious about the Rays’ lot in life, because that doesn’t fix anything; and (b) beat his head against the wall in an effort to get local government to fix his problems.

My sympathies, Mr. Sternberg. Really, you have them, because you’re right, it shouldn’t work this way.  But get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’, ya know?

  1. purnellmeagrejr - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    Surprisingly mean-spirited column – raising awareness of the situation could be useful in many ways. Way more ways than writing a column knocking the guy for telling the truth.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:42 AM

      Anyone in a position to affect change regarding the Rays is aware of it already. The only thing an “awareness” campaign does is speak to voters and people unconnected to the team and the lease, which is only useful if it sets the groundwork for a public dollars solution. Which I strongly oppose.

      Sternberg is a smart businessman. He’s fully entitled to his frustration over the situation because, yes, it is depressing. But he does need to work to find a solution to this problem at some point. To date, it doesn’t seem like much has been done in that regard.

      • purnellmeagrejr - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:49 AM

        You’re looking at it too narrowly – other owners are “in a position to effect change” the public as attendees are – even sportswriters. I hadn’t really thought through all the points Sternberg brought up, myself (not that I’m in a position to change anything.)
        The overall point I make is that public opinion directly or indirectly has an impact on the decisions MLB makes e.g – what do you think the chances of Selig’s extra wild card idea has now that there turned out to be two races on the last day of the season?

      • yuazda - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:49 AM

        I’m not seeing how this is whining or griping.

        This team just made the playoffs for the third time in the past four. I think Sternberg and any other reasonable person didn’t expect sellout crowds every night, but they probably assumed that sustained success would lead to some type of uptick in attendance and TV ratings — and instead they’ve gone significantly in the other direction.

        The improvements made to the team and franchise since Sternberg took over have been nothing short of incredible. They’re just coming to the realization that nothing short of winning three World Series in a row is going to give them a sustainable fan base. No griping about it, just something that they now have to plan around.

      • bigleagues - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:54 AM

        Craig, I don’t know all the whys and whats with what led to the Rays current RSN deal (which Sternberg signed), but it runs through 2016 and pays the Rays just $20 million per year. Not a good deal for a team in a Top 15 market and who’s RSN (SunSports/FoxSportsFlorida) can be seen throughout Florida – the 4th largest State in the country.

      • dailyrev - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:57 AM

        Yes, “raising awareness” is the business of those outside the walled garden (that’s what those kids at Zuccini Square or whatever it’s called at Occupy Wall St. are doing now). Whining from a mega-millionaire won’t stir much sympathy right now, in this economy. On a day where he could focus on all the positives and even take a little limelight for himself (“what a great team, what a great manager I have held together”) — he resorts to that typical woe-is-me-I’m-the-victim BS that we’ve been hearing so much from the owners of our feudal society these past 3 yrs.

      • uberfatty - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:04 PM

        Purnell – the wild card thing has nothing to do with public opinion. It’s about the extra revenue.

      • paperlions - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:20 PM

        He is complaining that the customers aren’t buying his product? Well, make the product more appealing and/or cheaper and maybe they will….but public complaints about people not buying your product will not do any good.

        Awareness? Seriously? Everyone has been aware of this situation for a very long time….they’ve already got more awareness than they can shake a stick at…what they don’t have is solutions…and these comments are not going to help generate any.

      • purnellmeagrejr - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:33 PM

        uberfatty – Agreed; they want it because of the potential for extra revenue – but it seems like such an unpopular (and manifestly bad) idea that I doubt they’ll be able to shove it down our throats.

    • jdocker - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:47 AM

      I think Craig did miss the mark in the column. Sternberg completely turned the team around. They put a wonderful team on the field that keeps on winning, yet the fans aren’t showing up. Yes, he knew the situation when he bought the Rays, but at that time they played horrible baseball. The common wisdom was create a better team and fans will flock. Thats how it seems to work for every other franchise. He had no way of knowing Tampa would be the exception.

      I appreciate his honesty and he shouldn’t be accused of griping.

      • southpaw2k - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:57 AM

        I completely agree. He’s an owner who is concerned not just with making money, but winning. It took several years of drafting and eventually calling up those players to the majors, but the Rays have put a winning product on the field. And this isn’t just the first year the team has seen success – they’ve made the playoffs 3 out of 4 years now. What more does the Tampa area need or want? If the team was fluky in 2008 I could sympathize with the fans, but it’s clear the team’s system is working, so Sternberg is entitled to be more than a little upset.

      • purnellmeagrejr - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:08 PM

        Late in yesterday’s game the Rays had a really inferior hitter up (Joyce?) It occurred to me that if they had a little more money they would have been able to put up a better hitter. They took two fliers on hitters this past year – one worked out (Damon) one went to the D.R. (Manny) With a few more bucks they might have been able to erase the Manny mistake (with Vernon Wells?) Oh, well.

  2. Ben - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:41 AM

    Here’s an idea: We move the current Twins team and management to Florida to that crummy park and call them the Rays, and we move the current Rays team and management to Minnesota and just call them the Twins. Everyone wins! The crappy Twins get the fanbase they deserve, the Rays get the fanbase they deserve.

    (As I Twins fan I’m just desperate for the firing of Bill Smith)

    • Ben - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:45 AM

      Also, the Rays get out of the AL East.

      • yuazda - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:55 AM

        Hell, the AL East is probably actually helping the Rays — the only time they come close to filling the Trop is when the Red Sox and Yankees come to town.

        Three playoff appearances in four years in the AL East for a team with a crappy ballpark and fanbase and no payroll is absolutely incredible but seems to go unnoticed in the region.

    • bsputnik - Oct 5, 2011 at 1:03 PM

      This, except do it with the Pirates.

  3. burmart - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    Stu knew all about the team when he bought it. He made millions in the financial industry before buying the Rays. To think that he didn’t know the dangers and benefits of owning an MLB team is ridiculous.

    Like the Wall Streeters who got the country into its current mess, Stu wants the people of Florida to pay for his business decisions. Privatize profits, socialize losses.

    He can take his threats and shove em where the sun don’t sign. There’s no other market that can support a baseball team in any relevant short period of time. He should stop being a petulant child and live with the business he bought.

  4. APBA Guy - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    It’s hard for people who haven’t been there to appreciate that the Trop is actually a much worse place to attend baseball than the Mausoleum. Worse still is their lease arrangement. But that can be dealt with or at least addressed, because it’s money. And if any owner can factor costs and risks it should be Sternberg.

    He’s not a “friend of Bud” in the sense that Lew Wolff is (and where has that gotten the A’s?) but he has got revenue and attendance potential in central Florida, which is a baseball hotbed. The other thing he’s got is a state government that, for the right price, can be induced to see things his way.

    As sophisticated as Sternberg has proven to be in the financial markets, he needs to wake up to the realities of Florida politics. Lew Wolff did not want to do this in Oakland, and perhaps justifiably, and that’s a big part of the A’s malaise now. But I hope Sternberg proves to be smarter than that. In Florida, money talks, as it does in most places. He’s just going to have to spread it around and see to it that everyone involved, from the St. Pete City Council to the Governor, has a stake in a positive outcome for the Rays.

  5. florida76 - Oct 5, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    Sternberg has been upset since 2009, when the Rays had a microscopic increase after the miracle pennant season of 2008. Looking back, the Rays might be in a better spot had the 2008 finished the job and won it all. The Tampa Bay Lightning were drawing flies before winning the Cup in 2004, and now attendance is solid.

    Anyone thinking the Rays are tied to Tropicana Field until 2027, and there is plenty of time to get a new stadium is mistaken. The lease is hardly ironclad, and the Rays can possibly escape by the end of this decade.

    The issues of community support/new stadium are actually more difficult than anything the Rays will face on the field.

  6. sdelmonte - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:00 PM

    So why isn’t anyone even watching on TV? Are Floridians just not really baseball fans? Or is it somehow tied to the state’s economy. None of the pro football teams seem to be doing well, either, from what I’ve read, even though the team in Tampa is pretty good.

    Old Gator, care to speak for your home state and for the fan base of the team on the other side of the state?

    • Jonny 5 - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:07 PM

      Florida is full of transplanted retirees who more than likely won’t let go of their home teams. Look at Clearwater during spring training. It’s part of the problem on top of many others. Like moldy beer, and a smelly park with turf.

    • Old Gator - Oct 5, 2011 at 2:17 PM

      sdelmonte:

      Florida baseball fans have in many ways been victimized not so much by their teams themselves, as by MLB’s rush to put teams in this state without really thinking through the situations in which those teams would find themselves. They put the Feesh into a football stadium with a truly awful lease and constricted revenue streams. They put the Razed into…well…I’ve called it the ugliest stadium in Beisbol plenty of times, so for variety’s sake I’ll call it the world’s biggest freestanding domed outhouse this time. We’ve been over the issue of the Razed’ incarceration in the Tropicana Dump many times. I’ve always believed – and by and large been supported by other Tampa area fans on this blog in my opinion – that if they were able to get themselves a stadium built somewhere to the east of downtown Tampa, where they could draw fans from Lakeland and Orlando along the I-4, I-75 and I-275 corridors, they would be in much better shape – not to mention all the assorted psychological and aesthetic benefits of escaping from the repulsive Tropicana Carbuncle itself.

      Vincent Namoli went out of his way to alienate his fan base, and though Sternberg surely can’t be faulted for being a miserable owner – the way, say, Feesh fans can fault the Huizinga, John Henry and Scrooge McLoria/Chihuahua regimes, I think it’s fair to say that the Razed got off on the wrong foot in their market and are still clawing their way back to the affections of their fans. Plus, the fans know that as long as the team is stuck in that gunite necropolis, they’re going to be “competitive” without having much of a realistic chance of ever winning it all. That’s depressing. A new stadium, someplace east of Tampa, would be a huge help in lifting that depression and opening the way to cultivating an expanded fan base.

      • Ick McWang - Oct 5, 2011 at 7:07 PM

        I agree with the East Tampa location, although the studies the local politicians and business people did, mentioned downtown tampa/channelside district (which would be right by the St Pete Times Forum, where the Lightning play) as having the most population within a 30 minute drive. However, basing the stadium more or less by the FLorida State Fairgrounds, (there is land around there, but hurry up and grab it before the Seminole Hard Rock Casino does), and is within 10 minutes or less of Highways 75, 275, and 301, and Interstate 4.

        However, i think the real problem for the Rays isn’t the individual people, its the complete and utter lack of corporate support. In nearly all big league cities, its 2/3 corporate season tickets, 1/3 personal season tickets. Here, its exactly the opposite. If our small, medium, and large corporations would step up and buy a few tickets for employees and business dealings, that would help. But of course, using those tickets to impress some corporate suit at the Trop versus at Raymond James Stadium, well, other than the stifling heat, there is no comparison

        And lastly, I’ve been to the Trop many times. It has its faults, but in Florida, I’d rather have a roof to block our nightly rainfall in the summer and the ac on.

      • raysfan1 - Oct 5, 2011 at 7:15 PM

        All true. It was still disappointing to see empty seats at a playoff game, regardless of the fact it was a day game. I’ve lived in Oklahoma the past couple years, so will still support them even if they ultimately move. I don’t think that’s very likely in the current economy though.

  7. Gamera the Brave - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    Craig, kudos for using a sports blog to covertly express your love for maybe the best Western of all time – The Outlaw Josey Wales.
    Unless I have mis-assigned that quote, in which case never mind…

    • purnellmeagrejr - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:10 PM

      It’s alright, Ma.

    • The Dangerous Mabry - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:12 PM

      I’m thinking he was going with Shawshank.

    • kiwicricket - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:30 PM

      Josey Wales and Shawshank in one post!….this is even better than the boiling frog anecdote!!

      (2nd the Josey Wales comment)

      • cur68 - Oct 5, 2011 at 1:22 PM

        Shawshank, I’m pretty sure, but Steven King has borrowed from Clint Eastwood before.

      • kiwicricket - Oct 5, 2011 at 1:59 PM

        I con-cur with that one….

        I trust all is well up and across there Cur??? The Canucks put up a brave effort against the locals in the WRC. I thought they played alright.

    • Old Gator - Oct 5, 2011 at 2:01 PM

      I know how Sternberg feels. When that rope gets tight around your neck, you can really feel the Devil bite your ass.

    • Old Gator - Oct 5, 2011 at 4:35 PM

      Only reason Josey Wales qualifies is because no one’s been able to figure out how to make a film of Blood Meridian yet. Stanley Kubrick died 20 years too soon.

  8. kiwicricket - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    Just curious as to why opinions and plights of sports teams Owners are ‘sometimes’ made public, when almost all other businesses keep their affairs close to their chest.

    Color me a skeptic, but from the moment I read the articles head-line, I thought there was an angle involved.

  9. marshmallowsnake - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    Those fans do not deserve a winning team! Much like Arizona, but at least the fans show up for playoff games here.

  10. professor59 - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    Stemberg made a business mistake. He misjudged the market. Does any pro team in Florida get support? Certainly not the Rays, Marlins or Dolphins. Maybe the Magic and Heat do OK, but they have much smaller stadiums.

    Florida may be a populous state, but more goes into making it a “big-market” in the sense of team support than numbers. For instance, it’s also the state with the highest average age. And it’s full of transplants from elsewhere, as mentioned above.

    Maybe have Hearing Aid Night at the park? Maybe more day games that end before the early-bird specials? Maybe more bus trips from senior centers?

    I feel bad for him, but blaming the stadium doesn’t really help much.

  11. Joe - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    Not to defend the Rays fans, but although team made the postseason, they appeared to be far out of contention for most of July, August and September. It wasn’t until the last week of the season or so when people started to think, “hey, they might actually do this!” So it’s not really like the fans were failing to support an obvious playoff contender.

    • Joe - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:32 PM

      In that regard, this isn’t really a team that “replicated last season,” because the 2010 team was in the mix and looked playoff-bound all year long.

    • Mark - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:50 PM

      True as that may be, you’d think the early season attendance #’s would be up as they had made the playoffs in 2 of the past 3 years at that point. They did make the ALDS last year after winning the division.

      And the last two weeks of the season should have seen better #’s as they were close enough to make it interesting. I don’t know the playoff #’s but but hopefully they were sold out.

      Either way, the Rays have now made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years. You’d think they would be putting up better attendance numbers. The Rays have done a terrific job putting up promotions and with free parking on certain days and concerts after the shows you’d think they’d be getting more people to the game.

      They have to move the team at this point. If a team makes the playoffs in 3/4 years and is seeing a decline in attendance numbers, it’s pretty clear that it’s not the team who is failing to get fans to come.

  12. 6ball - Oct 5, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    .

    Two additional points to add :

    1. The stadium is on the wrong side of the bay.

    2. Because of the continuously pleasant weather conditions people in Florida seem to have a wider variety of activities on which to spend their already stretched entertainment dollars.

    .

  13. Chris Fiorentino - Oct 5, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    Here’s the Rays attendance, results and payrolls for the last 5 years:

    2011 Tampa Bay Rays 91 71 2 Lost LDS (3-1) 1,529,188 $42,000,000
    2010 Tampa Bay Rays 96 66 1 Lost LDS (3-2) 1,864,999 $71,923,471
    2009 Tampa Bay Rays 84 78 3 1,874,962 $63,313,034
    2008 Tampa Bay Rays 97 65 1 Lost WS (4-1) 1,811,986 $43,820,597
    2007 Tampa Bay Rays 66 96 5 1,387,603 $24,123,500

    I actually have more respect for the Rays fans than before I saw this chart. Obviously, they
    saw that the team went cheap and dropped the payroll almost $30 million and made their
    voices heard. Good for them.

    • paperlions - Oct 5, 2011 at 3:30 PM

      Agreed. The team pretty much said, we’re going to pocket another $30M in profits this year. Spending money on the team can be as big a factor as the team winning in fan spending.

  14. bobdira - Oct 5, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    Mr. Sternberg cut the payroll from 2010 by almost 50%. In my opinion, a 15% reduction in attendance was a positive return.

    Look, everyone would like their stadium filled every game, but what is Stu doing to help that cause. The Rays for 80% of the season were a very difficult team to watch. As a season ticket holder for 5 years, there were games this year where the most important event was the first hit so we were sure we weren’t going to be no hit again.

    If all business was assured success by just putting a product for sale, or a shingle out “open for business” everyone would be successful. Stu doesn’t live here, doesn’t know the area that well and isn’t investing himself or his players in the community to raise the interest level.

    Hate to tell you Stu, but marketing is necessary when you’re not the only game in town. You’re competing with a lot of recreational activities down here and not differentiating yourself enough to draw. Oh, and the best thing about the Trop…….the air conditioning. Make sure any new stadium has it.

    • bklynbaseball - Oct 5, 2011 at 2:08 PM

      Wow, very interesting, Bob. In fact, you can’t throw a rock in Pinellas County without hitting some dirtbag who claims to be a Rays fan since the beginning – yet they can’t name the starting nine. You can’t watch tv for an hour without seeing more than one Rays commercial. Their gear is everywhere. Marketing isn’t the problem. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the game knows that the Rays have probably the best farm system in MLB. They’re going to be good for a while.
      So it isn’t the product on the field.

      Maybe it’s all the old people on fixed incomes that won’t support professional sports anyway, no matter who it is. Maybe it’s the fact that Pinellas County and the Bay Area in general is more tourist than business, so MLB simply isn’t a good idea here. Maybe it’s all the Oxycontin-popping no-job-having dirtbags who are making all the noise about this but who also wouldn’t go even if the Rays went 162-0.

      Maybe it’s hard to consider someone insisting on air conditioning in a baseball stadium a true fan in the first place.

  15. dbick - Oct 5, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    Can someone with more knowledge of the situation explain why they just don’t move the team? The fan base is obviously not there and the ball park is horrendous. What else needs to happen to move them?

    • Joe - Oct 5, 2011 at 2:53 PM

      To where?

    • Chris Fiorentino - Oct 5, 2011 at 3:46 PM

      I think they have a pretty solid lease through like 2026 with that shithole stadium they play in.

  16. ta192 - Oct 5, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    No matter what the reason for the lack of support, poor stadium, poor location, poor fan base, whatever, it will be a cold day in Hell before I shed a tear for some multi-millionaire owner during this kind of economy…he’s certainly better off than the vast majority…

  17. crnvic847 - Oct 5, 2011 at 4:50 PM

    You know what’s pathetic? A crowd of just over 28,000 for a playoff game!!! Even the piss poor Cubs attract over 35,000 for a team that loses nearly 100 games every season!! It’s going to be the Las Vegas Rays if the people of Tampa/St. Pete don’t start supporting this team.

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