Rays owner Stuart Sternberg made his promised “important announcement regarding the future of the Rays franchise” yesterday, and if it wasn’t exactly new news — basically Sternberg said he doesn’t want to stay in downtown St. Petersburg, something that’s been pretty much a given for more than a year now — it certainly did the trick from a media event standpoint: Both local papers today are chock full of stories on the Rays’ future and where — not whether — a new stadium will be built.
Meanwhile, Sternberg came his closest yet to dropping the move-threat bomb, telling the St. Petersburg Times that if he were starting fresh, Tampa Bay wouldn’t even be on his list of preferred cities to play in:
“If I were just coming into this, and you dropped me in the middle of the United States, this isn’t going to be one of the top five markets that doesn’t have baseball,” Sternberg said. “But we’re here. Our fans are here.”
Wait, you say. There are five markets better than this one? Five empty markets?
“Yes,” Sternberg said.
“At least five,” he said.
There are places he could move, Sternberg said, where the Rays would be among baseball’s best 10 markets. However, he says, he is thinking about only Tampa Bay.”
To which I can only say: Really? Sternberg didn’t provide specifics, and Times sportswriter Gary Shelton apparently didn’t ask for any, which leaves us to play Guess the Relocation Threat Target. With the help of the Arbitron media market rankings, let’s run down the available candidates:
Puerto Rico: We’re already out of the top ten markets, and Puerto Rico only ranks this high (#14) because Arbitron considers the entire island to be one market. San Juan was briefly mentioned as a relocation candidate during the Montreal Expos’ Extortion Across America Tour (tm Doug Pappas), but it’s even poorer and more prone to unpleasant summer weather than Tampa Bay, and that’s saying something.
Nassau-Suffolk: Could certainly support an MLB team, but the Yanks and Mets have dibs.
Portland, Oregon: Another once-rumored Expos suitor, Portland has a bunch of problems that have kept it off the MLB map: Not only doesn’t it have a major-league-size stadium or any plans for one, its minor-league stadium is being refitted to be soccer-only after this season, which could force the Beavers out of town.
Charlotte: Much like Portland, a smallish market (smaller than Baltimore, bigger than Pittsburgh) with a brief past dalliance with relocation rumors. And while its Triple-A team isn’t leaving town, it did finish last in its league last year in attendance, though luring fans with beer on Sundays has helped somewhat.
Riverside-San Bernardino: Dodgers/Angels territory.
Sacramento: Occasionally talked up as an A’s relocation site, but Lew Wolff hasn’t been listening, preferring such metropolises as Fremont.
And so on. (Next few on the list, if you want to play along at home: Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Columbus.) None immediately leap to mind as better markets than Tampa Bay — coming up with five seems incomprehensible. And, of course, there’s the small matter of the 17 years remaining on the Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field, something that the city of St. Pete has been aggressively insisting it will sue the pants off anyone who even talks about trying to break it.
In the long run, will the Rays end up in Tampa, or some intermediate point like northern Pinellas County (or a barge floating in the middle of the bay)? Very possibly, though the harder question — where to come up with the money to build a stadium — has yet to be even broached. But right now, it’s all about the posturing, to determine how much of a payoff Sternberg will have to kick in to either 1) get a new stadium built somewhere in St. Pete or 2) buy his way out of that lease. Which is, no doubt, why he’s waving city lists around like James Gregory: As Jerry Reinsdorf taught us, “a savvy negotiator creates leverage.”
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I'm sure some fans are kept away because they hate domes or because St. Pete is on the wrong side of the bay for them, but mostly, the Rays' problem is that they play in a smallish market. That'd be true if they played in Tampa, in a new open-air stadium in St. Pete, in Charlotte, in a house or with a mouse. I can see why Sternberg wants a new stadium, especially if he's not the one who'd have to pay for it, but there's zero evidence that it would suddenly lead to eternal sellouts.
It seems like the Phoenix Coyotes scenario looks pretty likely: This will drag on and on in court, but eventually the league will get to do what they want.