by Mitch Perry
The Rays have a lease that locks them into playing at Tropicana Field until 2027, but with attendance ranking dead last in all of Major League Baseball (MLB) in recent years, Sternberg has made it clear that he wants to find a new home.
Though he hasn't said specifically where that would be, he's been explicit in his desire to have the option of speaking with officials in Tampa — the center of the Tampa Bay region. But St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster had been adamant in not allowing that to happen.
Sternberg admitted toward the end of his presentation today that it's been "frustrating" working with the "second administration" in St. Pete, criticizing Foster without ever mentioning his name.
The meeting was facilitated by Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners chairman Ken Hagan, an avowed sports junkie who said that MLB erred in the first place by locating the franchise in St. Petersburg.
Sternberg, 52, is a Brooklyn native and Wall Street investor who purchased the Rays in May of 2004 and took over operations of the team in late 2005.
After languishing thorough bad seasons and low attendance in the first few years of the franchise, the team has turned it around since 2008, making it to the World Series that year and having winning seasons each successive season (the best run for any professional sports team in Tampa Bay's short history).
But attendance has plummeted. Despite that reality, Sternberg and the other members of his executive staff, including team president Matt Silverman and senior vice president of development and business affairs Michael Kalt, emphasized how much they enjoyed having the Rays being a big part of community life in the Tampa Bay area, and how they want to continue to be for decades to come.
Kalt said that it's always been a time-tested theory in Major League Baseball that if your team wins, the fans will follow. But obviously that's not been the case here. For example, consider the Texas Rangers, who, like the Rays, only began winning in the past five years on a consistent basis. While both teams struggled with attendance in 2008, Kalt said the Rangers now have the third best attendance in the league.
Kalt and Sternberg both emphasized that the location of Tropicana Field (located east of downtown St. Pete) is a considerable distance from the center of the region.
Sounding frustrated, Sternberg said the team had invested millions of dollars on a possible new ballpark on the site of Al Lang Field along the waterfront in 2007-2008, but "it fell on deaf ears," which he said was "extremely deflating."
Opposition to that plan, first unveiled in late November of 2007, began immediately. A proposed referendum to be placed on the 2008 ballot in St. Petersburg was ultimately withdrawn by the Rays management when it became apparent that it was not going to be successful.
Commissioner Victor Crist asked if the current location of the ballpark is such a detriment to attracting fans, what did that mean about that Rays' 2008 plan, which would have located a new stadium less than 3 miles from the Trop?
He also questioned the amount of marketing the team has done recently, saying he rarely if ever sees any billboards while traveling on Bay area interstates, especially when compared to other areas he travels. Sternberg denied that the team had cut back on advertising.
Sternberg said that Major League Baseball, "doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area," but he couldn't predict when or if they would forcefully intervene as they've done in Montreal and Minnesota in the past. (Montreal's franchise ended up relocating to Washington D.C.) Most of the 30 teams in baseball have acquired or refurbished their stadium situations over the past couple of decades, with Oakland and Tampa/St. Pete being the only teams whose future is unclear.
Saying that he personally doesn't separate Hillsborough from Pinellas County, Sternberg said, "We do need some cooperation and a body of water should not be the defining part."
But he also emphasized that he is not holding anyone hostage, saying the day that he purchased the Rays he vowed never to demand a new stadium. "I'm still not demanding a new stadium. It has been frustrating dealing with the second administration (in St.Pete)."
Sternberg and his colleagues will next address the Pinellas County Commission on Tues., Jan. 29.