Tampa Bay Might Lose Professional Baseball, But Is There Really a Bidder?

WikipediaBaseball, to be honest, is going through a rough patch in the Tampa Bay area and might turn to a lost cause. This is not talking about the Rays franchise itself, but talking about the community support that is lacking here in this area. Tampa Bay has declared itself one of the prime destinations for spring training ever since the beginning of the 20th century. Many franchises like the Yankees and the Phillies that consider the Tampa Bay area its spring home. About 18 years ago, Vince Namoli bid to become the newest Major League Baseball franchise which is known as the Tampa Bay Rays.

The huge tourism support for spring training here in the area is the reason why Tampa Bay fans were awarded to watch Major League Baseball year-round instead of just one month.

When the award occurred, they already had a stadium built. The stadium was built years prior to the franchise and to today’s standard it is an outdated, boring, and unattractive stadium known as Tropicana Field. From the first pitch that occurred in 1998 to now in 2013, attendance has always been an issue with this ballclub, whether the team was good or not, people didn’t come to the stadium. The exception was two years, both 1998 which ranked number 14 and in 2009 which was ranked number 23. In other years, Tampa Bay would either rank last or next to last). No matter what ownership can do whether they build a playoff caliber team or constructing a Stingray Touch Tank to attract the youth, it still doesn’t help bring people into the seats. This is proof why the Tampa Bay area might lose its baseball team if ownership gives up. Where will the team go in the future?

The Tampa Bay Rays was purchased from Vince Namoli by New York Investor Stuart Sternberg. He invested millions of dollars in order to make Tropicana Field more attractive and rebuild the Tampa Bay Rays from a laughing stock to a playoff team which he succeeded by going into their first World Series in 2008. Within the last five years, the Rays made it to the playoffs four times. The roster is consistently a gold mine when it comes to developing players. The front office has done everything right with the franchise, why is it last in attendance in 2013? The main reason for its failure it’s both its stadium and its location. Tropicana Field was built in 1990 before anything happen with a baseball franchise. The City of St. Petersburg thought of a plan to lure an existing Major League baseball franchise into Tampa Bay not knowing of the repercussions on building without a baseball franchise. The city discussed with the Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, and the San Francisco Giants on relocating to St. Petersburg, but all have failed. It was eight years after the Trop was built that the first ever baseball game was played and it was during a time that new stadiums where becoming more modern entities with designs for more of the casual fan, rather than the die-hard. Luxury suites, side attractions, and even pools were built in order to get fans into the stadium for 81 games. Tropicana Field attempted to create that vibe into the stadium, but failed due to both the location from the centralized population and the look of being a “punishment cell”, quoted by ESPN personality Keith Olbermann. Kristi Dosh, who is an expert in sports finance that currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, says about the Tropicana Field staff on game day, “They made it as accessible as they can possibly make it for people.” She also described that this ballpark is not something worth calling her dad about to check out because of the blandness of the stadium. Their lease at Tropicana Field doesn’t end until 2027 and the City of St. Petersburg will not break their contract with the Rays unless there is a huge cash payoff. Let’s say the city made a deal to break the contract and move across the bay to the City of Tampa, who will pay off the broken lease and the pay for the new stadium? Major League Baseball commissioner Bug Selig has even gotten involved and yet there has been not even one move or one rumor that they will move out of St. Petersburg. Sternberg did try all his hardest in order to get a winning ballclub and a great fan base to back it up, but let’s just say what if he actually sells to someone that wants to move out of St. Pete?

Keith Olbermann, a popular sports personality, was giving his take on another possible option after baseball agent Scott Boras made a comment for the Rays to move to New Jersey. He made it clear that Montreal would be the best option if the Rays are for sale. The issues back when the Expos were in existence were from two different reasons. One was their stadium that was completely outdated and out of the general population area from any fans going to the game. Olympic Stadium was built in 1976 for the purpose of the Olympics and was never intended for baseball. The other reason was when the owner Charles Bronfman decided to sell the franchise in 1990. He sold his majority shares of the team to an investment group led by Claude Brochu. Bronfman was the primary owner of the Expos since 1969 and chairman of Seagram, which was one of the biggest liquor companies in Canada back in the 1990s. His purpose for selling is to take charge in his family owned company that was not making the best decisions in office. Before the sale was even thought of, the Expos were Canada’s team. The people of Quebec loved the Expos and came out to sell out crowds back in the 70s and early 80s with only one time they made it to the playoffs. During Bronfman’s reign in the owner’s chair; from 1979 to 1980 attendance was ranked number 4 and from 1981-1983 they skyrocketed to number 2 in all of Major League Baseball. Merchandise for their Expos was on the rise and broadcasting deals for both radio and television were exploding for the demand of the Montreal Expos. Joe Tetreault from the Biz of Baseball said, “The first place Expos drew a phenomenal 137,497 for a four game set with the Cardinals in the final four games played in Montreal during the 1994 season, which was more than three times the average attendance on the season” After the sale to Claude Brochu and his investment group, money was tight. The money was so tight, that in order to support the current players that they did have, they depended wholeheartedly on the broadcasting deals. In the 90s when the Expos where in developmental form attendance dropped to not even a million a year. In 1994, the Montreal Expos became a first place team in bound to being a World Series contender. The baseball strike of 1994 took place August of that year and as attendance dramatically rose up for this Expos team, work has stopped. The work stoppage continued until parts of 1995, which led broadcasting deals to break and the Expos did not get paid. The work stoppage forced the Expos to sell off their best players to different teams in order to make ends meat. As soon as the strike was over the damage was done. Within a period of ten years, an Expos game was not even fun to go to and the team was known as a lost cause. From 2000-2004 attendance was ranked last in Major League Baseball with averaging not even a million fans a season. As a result, ownership decided to sell the team to Major League Baseball in order to revitalize the team into the Washington Nationals.

Let’s compare and contrast both teams. What is similar is they both have had poor attendance records and both were in undesirable stadiums that were out of the central population. What is different is the Tampa Bay Rays have a great ownership that believes in the Tampa Bay area and has constructed a franchise that is playoff contender consistently. The City of Montreal was one of the strongest fan bases when the Expos were around, but the frugal ownership and bad luck due to work stoppages in MLB cause their team to depart. The scenario can lead into a possibility of a move than can actually occur if the Rays ownership gives up, and there is one person that can make that possibility a reality, his name is Warren Cromartie. Cromartie is a former Expo and the head of Montreal Baseball Project which is a group of wealthy investors seeking either an expansion franchise or an existing MLB franchise to move over to Montreal. Currently Cromartie and his group are doing a feasibility study to see if the City of Montreal can financially support a Major League Franchise. The results came in with Montreal being able to financially support a baseball team with the estimated cost of $500 million dollars for a new downtown ballpark and $525 million dollars to purchase the franchise. None of the cost relates to land, infrastructure, or sewage pipes. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig replied to that rumor to John Perrotto of USA Today saying, “This comes from them, not us. We don’t have any clubs moving and we certainly don’t have any expansion plans. But there are a lot of people up there who believe in this and I think that’s great. I’m happy for them.” Michael Sasso of the Tampa Tribune gave more light on why Rays fans shouldn’t worry on a Montreal move,”Cromartie doesn’t have the money to buy a team or pay for a new ballpark, so he knows he faces long odds. For now, he’s hoping to find a would-be owner to buy and relocate a team, while he makes noise to keep Montreal in the discussion. He has support from Montreal’s chamber of commerce, the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.” Any rumors on moving to Tampa or Montreal are just rumors. Rick Kriseman, the new Mayor of St. Petersburg had an interview with Mark Ryan on a radio show called, “Out of Bounds” on 98.7 the Fan in Tampa. His approach on resolving the stadium situation is to “start rebuilding that relationship” and “giving people more confidence” in order to convince the fans that the team will be feasible in St. Petersburg. Any rumors on moving to Tampa or Montreal are just rumors. “The first people we (St. Petersburg) have to work with is the Rays”, said Kriseman.

It is very unlikely that the Rays will go anywhere but to stay in St. Petersburg and work out a solution in order to make baseball work in the area. Both Stuart Sternberg and Bud Selig are keeping faith in the area, but its hanging by a thread. To at least keep the team in the south there can be a few options that can be worked on in order to be in a new stadium. The first option is selling the team over to Jeff Vinik who is the owner of the NHL franchise Tampa Bay Lightning. He is current buying property across the surrounding area of the Tampa Bay Times Forum in downtown Tampa for what is worth to probably get a new stadium for the Rays. The second option is going to be a move to neighboring Orlando. The reason Orlando is a viable option is because their City Council approves all public funding for all sports franchises. Three examples come into mind; approval to build the Amway Center, approval to renovate the Florida Citrus Bowl, and approval to build a new soccer stadium for an MLS franchise. To be honest, Orlando should not renovate the Citrus Bowl at all. The renovation would be budgeted at $185 million dollars. As an idea it would be best to trade places with Tropicana Field and demolish the Citrus Bowl in order to build a new ballpark for the Rays on the site of the legendary spring facility Tinker Field. The events held at the Citrus Bowl can move over to the Trop to make the City of St. Petersburg some income. The Tampa Bay Rays can contribute $200 million dollars to build the stadium and all the problem would be is just the drive, which won’t hurt. The last option would be an unlikely option but to move to Turner Field in Atlanta and renovate the stadium to the Rays liking in using. By 2017, the Atlanta Braves will move to a new ballpark ten miles north and are planning to demolish the Ted by then. The stadium will be twenty years old at that time and it is a very classy ballpark with better amenities than Tropicana Field. If the Rays can renovate to what the ballpark standard would be, a new rivalry can be born between the Rays and the Braves. In conclusion, in the next few years the Rays will stay in Tampa Bay for the reason of the faith in ownership, how long will it last?

Take a look on both coalitions on to both bring baseball to Montreal and to save Tampa Bay baseball:





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