It has certainly been an interesting 48 hours or that were kicked off by Peter Gammons suggesting the Rays would be better off playing in south Jersey or Connecticut. That bit of news kicked off the ridiculous campaign stunt, err, news story from WFTV-9 in Orlando that a group was looking to move a team to Orlando and once the Brewers rumor was shot down, everyone immediately started to talk about the Rays being the team. Today, our friend Noah Pransky at wtsp.com updated us on the latest ABC Coalition report that simply restated the obvious points that most of us already know: The Trop is not a good long-term solution either in its current status or renovated, and a new stadium should be built closer to the mainland.
Throughout all of this, we’ve heard about the Rays being in financial trouble and I feel I accurately dispelled those rumors in my piece yesterday. Tropicana Field limits the Rays’ revenue sources because of its poor location and its lack of the upscale amenities that draw a lot of the larger dollar clients at other ballparks but the Forbes report last year still paints a very nice picture for this club. The Rays had the unfortunate luck of getting successful as the economy was tanking which did not allow them to fully capitalize on their on-field success in 2008. A commenter in yesterday’s piece raised the excellent point that the Rays showed growth last year despite the poor economy and the substantial price increase in ticket prices. A bad economy, higher ticket prices, and yet the team had the second highest yearly attendance total in its history trailing only the inaugural season of 1998. The club has adjusted its pricing model for the 2010 season in hopes of increasing the yearly attendance for a third straight season.
Given the fact that most in this area are struggling just to keep their own homes, it is highly unlikely the local governments are going to find the cash to help the Rays build a new stadium which is going to constantly fuel the rumors of relocation and frankly, they are only going to get worse the longer this situation draws out. The Orlando situation does not pass the sniff test for me as a local citizen for a few reasons:
- A vocal portion of the local citizenry fought tooth and nail against the funding for the Orlando Magic’s new arena – and that is for a team that is wildly popular in the city.
- The economic situation in Orlando is no different than what is being experienced by Pinellas County and the already planned improvements to the dilapidated Citrus Bowl have been pushed back to 2020. Before you ask, that stadium cannot be converted into a baseball yard unless planners went retro and wanted to honor the 1958 L.A. Coliseum that the Dodgers had to play in until Chavez Ravine was finished.
- Despite what Mr. Gutierrez would like us to believe, if there are private investors in this area willing to buy a team and pay for a stadium in this area, it would be for football. Face it, Florida is home to football and locals would be more willing to help dig up funds for a football franchise than a baseball team they barely care about now. Despite the successes of 2008 and the winning season last year, Rays gear is still difficult to find in Orlando and the area could not sell out the 13,000 seats at Champion Stadium in 2007 or 2008 when the Rays brought a series over to Disney in each of those seasons.
- The Brewers talk may have been confused with a long-whispered rumor of their Florida State League franchise in Brevard relocating to UCF. As I have heard it, the ownership wanted to move to the UCF campus and help UCF pay for the expansion of its baseball field that would have been mutually beneficial to both parties. It would allow UCF to host regional games in the NCAA tourney that it currently cannot and gives the two parties a field sharing agreement for maintenance and upkeep. I first heard of this 18 months ago and the fact that UCF is already moving forward with it’s own expansion plans for Jay Bergmann Field without any kind of announcement of a relocation of the Brevard Manatees tells me that rumor is dead.
- Orlando has been a horrible supporter of minor league baseball having failed to attract good crowds at both Tinker Field in downtown Orlando as well as Champion Stadium at Disney when the Orlando Rays were there. In 1981, in the midst of a baseball player strike and the Orlando Twins winning the league title (managed by Tom Kelly), the club averaged barely 1,000 fans a game. Flash forward to 2003, the last year Orlando had a minor league baseball team and the Orlando Rays were playing at Disney in one of the best ballparks in all of the minor leagues and yet still had the worst attendance in the Southern League which prompted the club to move to Montgomery, Alabama.
Should Rays fans be worried about the club leaving sometime in the future? Absolutely – it is the best business decision for the club should a new stadium not materialize in the bay area. Will the move be to Orlando? No, not until a stadium is present. Major League Baseball should not let another Montreal Expos (sorry, Jonah) situation repeat where a club is left to play in lame duck status while preparations are made for its next home. Any Orlando group could not purchase the Rays without a stadium substantially completed because there is no temporary home in this city for baseball. Disney’s stadium would have to be set up by the new LegoLand in Winter Haven to get its current seating capacity to just 20,000 seats. I would expect cities such as Portland, Charlotte, or even the borough of Brooklyn to roll out the red carpet should Sternberg and company put the for sale sign out in the front pavement of Tropicana Field.
The group purchased the team for $200m less than five years ago and could easily sell the team today for double that but I get the sense the current ownership team is committed to the Bay area as long as it is financially feasible. Stories like the one that came out of Orlando serve as leverage for the team in new stadium argument – a situation that Bay area citizens are all too familiar with given the history of Tropiciana Field and the frustrating dance the Giants, White Sox, and Mariners did on the area in the 80’s and 90’s to leverage their own towns to build the new stadium. It is a dance as old as baseball itself that ends a majority of the time with a bow of the local government giving the team what they want.