Last Sunday brought the Tampa Bay Rays’ frustrating season on the field to an end and it also closed the book on another failed season at the box office. The Rays needed the Cleveland Indians to lose not one, not two, but three different home games to rain to not finish with the worst total attendance in baseball for the third straight year. The Rays still had the worst average attendance in baseball as less than 1.5 million fans went through the turnstiles. Already the mayor of St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman has sat down with Rays President Matthew Silverman to talk about the future of the Rays in St. Petersburg. Across the bridge in Tampa, Hillsborough County commissions want to put together a plan of action so they are ready if and when they can talk to the Rays.
All this talk and planning is nice, but would a new stadium solve the Rays financial woes? A lot of influential people aren’t sure it does. Near the top of that list is the ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In a front page article in last Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times, Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke admitted that Tampa Bay was a marketplace that was spread out and without tons of corporate support. He admitted that the team, despite being sold out for most games, has lost money over the last four years.
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The Lightning are owned by hedge fund millionaire Jeff Vinik, who has also become a major real estate developer. He owns most of the land in the Channelside district in downtown Tampa that is also the location of the 19,000 seat Amalie area that is home to the Lightning. Vinik admits that the Lightning will probably never make money and will just be a part of his grander scheme to develop Channelside into a commercial, residential, and entertainment destination. When asked about a baseball team in Channelside, Vinik has consistently said that he does not see baseball as a “game changer” in downtown Tampa.
All of this shoots big holes in Tampa Major Bob Buckhorn’s theory that downtown Tampa is the answer to the Rays’ stadium issue and creates further doubt as to whether Major League Baseball is viable in a market that is so spread out with no public transportation system, little corporate support, and a service economy that doesn’t produce a lot a well-paying jobs. In truth, most stadiums are not built to solve a team’s financial problems–they are built because an owner wants a shiny new toy in his portfolio.
In the end, many more factors will play into determining the financial success of the Tampa Bay Rays than building a new stadium. The land, construction, and infrastructure costs have to be paid for by someone. No matter where the stadium is built, the vast majority of the fans must travel the crowed interstate highways during rush hour to get to weekday night games. There is still limited public transportation to get fans to the game. Corporations have to pay for signage, luxury boxes and season tickets. The average worker has to go to the ATM and withdraw over $100 to take his family of four to the game. And finally, as Jeff Vinick has found out, you need to develop a new economic model if you are going to own a major league sports team in Tampa Bay.