I love the Tampa Bay Rays, and have been a season ticket holder since 2011, yet what follows might not suggest as much. Bear with me, I need to clean out my closet.
Since the end of the 2008 season, the Rays ownership group, led by principle owner Stu Sternberg, has gone to great lengths to castigate the team’s fan-base — especially those of us on the Pinellas side of the bay — as the root cause for its woes.
Angry that we traded away your favorite players? Well blame yourselves for not attending more ball games!
— An approximation of Sternberg’s year in and year out comments on the state of the Rays payroll.
In turn, the local fan-base has found it increasingly hard to attach itself to Sternberg, who lives 1,156 miles away in New York City.
Meanwhile, the ownership has propagated this idea that it NEEDS a new stadium to counter an unspecified financial shortfall, although Sternberg hasn’t been willing to open the books to show this grand financial crisis that can only be mitigated by new digs. As I wrote back on January 24, the Rays opened last season with a $70,064,700 payroll after netting $208,475,502.80 in 2016. Sternberg invested just 33.61% of the team’s profits on the roster, while the league average was 44.66%. The Marlin’s previous ownership group spent more on the roster ($115,406,101) even though the ball club pulled in just $1-million more than the Rays in 2016. More than anything it is an indictment of Sternberg, who has become accustomed to running the team on the cheap.
If I may, I would love to see the team play baseball in a shiny new facility or else I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to be a part of the Baseball Forever campaign. Do the Rays deserve a new home? Yes! Is the Trop outdated? Absolutely. Would it increase corporate revenue? There’s reason to believe so. However, the ownership should never hold the fan-base (read: taxpayers) hostage over anything that may be viewed as a fabrication, and until there’s evidence of an economic crisis within the ranks of the Tampa Bay Rays, Sternberg’s long held defense does not hold water.
His statements have unfortunate consequences, including a strain of divisiveness within the local fan-base.
Due to what has become a factionalized fan-base, a pseudo chest-thumping/territorial pissing contest, to prove which side of the bay houses the best fans, has become commonplace both on the airwaves and the net. Civility be damned, what used to be an Us vs. Them mentality, as it relates to on-field action, has become a sibling rivalry between fans on both sides of the bay. Personally, I have been thrust into the middle of far too many spats that have resulted in “Fuck you,” and “Fuck Pinellas County” messages on our social media platforms, as well as in the stands of the Trop. Friends, baseball is just a game, but apparently I am no longer just a fan with an all-consuming hobby. Rather I’ve become a pariah among others, while my community has morphed into a leper colony — both of which are doomed to be sidestepped in lieu of the smarter and better looking fans, and the greener pastures that somehow will miraculously improve attendance figures.
That the ownership is unwilling to concede the point, that a lack of investment into the ball-club — among other things, mind you — is just one of reason fans have not flocked to the Big Top. In the end, this self fulfilling prophecy continues to drive a low hanging narrative, that Tampa is the panacea that will fix everything.
It bears mentioning, according to Pro Football Reference, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found themselves in the bottom third (if not closer to the very bottom) of NFL attendance figures extending back to 2006. Even Raymond James Stadium, a centrally located facility that should cull fans from both sides of the bay because of its proximity to Pinellas County, has a hard time selling out just eight-times a season.
I grew up in St. Petersburg and watched minor league baseball throughout my youth, up to the point the Devil Rays took the field for the first time on March 31, 1998. Before that I watched the stadium being built from the ground up, from my art classroom at 16th Street Middle School. Seventh grade me hoped that one day a big league team would call it home. That inevitably happened and I still have the front page section of the St. Petersburg Times that came after the expansion announcement. The Sunshine City would finally be awarded a team!
From then on I fully immersed myself in the then Devil Rays, always reminding myself what it was like to not have a professional baseball team to call my own. My closets and shelves are bursting at the seams with team memorabilia from the bad old years to the scrappy Joe Maddon era, and now beyond. I took over this blog in 2012, and, as I said above, I’ve been a season ticket holder for quite some time. Those things, however, do not make me better than anyone else, including the casual fans — fans are fans.
A decade after the Rays took the field under the roof of the Thunder Dome, the team showed a hunger to build a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, which excited me beyond words. I had a Build the Sail sign in my front yard; it’s probably gathering dust somewhere in my garage as I type. Four-years later, I felt another jolt of elation thanks to Darryl LeClair’s dream to build the Rays a new facility in Carillon. Finally, the City of St. Petersburg aspired to make Sternberg and the Tampa Bay Rays part owners of the Tropicana Field site, complete with a brand new stadium, which had me jumping over the moon. Yet the ownership pulled out of the 2008 initiative before a referendum vote could be cast, it didn’t come close to giving LeClair a fair shake, and now it appears that Sternberg is scoffing at St. Petersburg’s stadium proposal, only to pander to Hillsborough County’s business community.
What happens with St. Petersburg if a stadium deal in Ybor City is finalized, and the Rays find themselves mingling with the owners of reputable establishments like The Amphitheater and the Church of Scientology? Aside from the Trop’s 85-acres undergoing a massive redevelopment, not much.
It’s common knowledge that professional sports franchises really are not the giant economic generators they claim to be. As Michael Leeds (sports economist at Temple University) found when he studied the two professional baseball franchises in Chicago, if the Cubs were to close up shop tomorrow, the economic impact would be negligible at best:
If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent, Leeds says. A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.
But the two things a professional baseball team adds to a community are an identity and a sense of pride, which Sternberg appears intent on ripping away from many of us who have supported the Rays since day one. And because of it, I find myself falling out of love with my favorite team.
To the readers in Hillsborough County, you may feel like you’re winning some war, but just be cognizant of who defined the struggle…of who drew the battle lines…of who or what is making you feel the need to be competitive with your neighbors across the bay. It clearly isn’t you; those ideas were born elsewhere. The Rays ownership — and a good chunk of the local media that has fallen into line with Sternberg — have pumped our heads full of ideas that we mustn’t be cooperative with one another; that we must be defined by some stupid turf war. This isn’t about who can support the Rays better though, rather it’s about who will be duped into paying higher taxes for a new stadium in lieu of the everyday amenities that make our lives better, like roads and sewers. And if the Ybor site not only becomes the preferred location for a stadium, but the forever home of the Rays — time will tell on that one, as Hillsborough County does not yet have a suitable funding apparatus — you will be asked to forgo tax dollars that could better be used elsewhere. The same could be said for those of us in Pinellas County* although not to the same extent.
I will not be attending FanFest for the first time in almost a decade, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t be alone. And as with many others, I am finding it increasingly difficult to further support an ownership that clearly doesn’t care about the fan-base. Don’t get me wrong, the players and the front office staff are great. They, however, can only do so much to cover for an owner that has a clear disdain for the baseball fans in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County first and foremost, and those in Tampa and Hillsborough County secondly.
Although the likelihood of taxes being raised in Pinellas County are far less than in Hillsborough County.