Here is the flabbergasting reality of the Tampa Bay Rays: They are on pace to finish with a winning record for a sixth straight season but have the lowest average attendance in the American League (17,909).
The location and aesthetics of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg have prevented the franchise from reaching its full financial and competitive potential. But there’s no concrete plan for the Rays to play elsewhere, in large part because St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has resisted calls to let the team out of its stadium lease.
That is the dilemma facing principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who granted FOXSports.com an exclusive, wide-ranging interview at this week’s MLB Diversity Business Summit in Houston.
Sternberg is chairman of Major League Baseball’s diversity oversight committee and a member of Commissioner Bud Selig’s newly formed on-field diversity task force.
Part 1 of our conversation — on baseball’s efforts to expand diversity and the future of the game itself — can be found here.
This is Part 2, focusing on the Rays’ perpetual effort to secure a new stadium, the prospect of moving to another market and the team’s ability to retain star players such as reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price.
FS: As it stands now, how much longer is your lease to play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg?
SS: Fourteen (more) years, through 2027. It’s far, but it’s not that far because I can’t in 2026 snap my fingers and all of a sudden have a place to play. The groundwork needs to be done, starting very soon. You’ve got to figure out the proper location, whether it’s 10 yards from where we’re playing or 30 miles. Then you have to figure out if it’s feasible. Then you have to go through the approvals and everything else. Even if you have a location, just to get that OK’d takes years. Then it takes years to actually build the thing. At some point in the next few years, we’ve got to have it figured out.
FS: The St. Petersburg mayor is up for reelection this year. Is the process on hold pending the outcome of the election?
SS: I’ve chatted with the mayor. We’ve talked. I feel better than I did a year ago — or the year before that, or the year before that, or the year before that. I don’t feel good about it. But I feel better. We’ll see. I’d like to think we’re going to be able to make progress. I really shy away from doing any of this in-season. Ideally, we’ll tackle it in earnest at the end of the season.
FS: What makes you feel better?
SS: (In 2005), when we (Sternberg’s ownership group) first came in, everybody thought, ‘If you win, they’ll come.’ We won, and they didn’t come. … Then you needed to sustain it. Well, we sustained it. … Then it was the personalities. ‘We want to make sure they’re there, that there’s continuity. How do we know you’re not doing this for a quick sale?’ There were always questions. I’ve heard them all. A large percentage thought, well, it was economy (to blame for the attendance). Not that the economy has gotten great, but it certainly has rebounded.
I think there’s been a capitulation around the area that there’s no way in heck it’s going to work where we are. Let’s figure out the reason and go from there. We need to get at it in earnest and try to come up with answers. We don’t want to go forward with something and have it not work. You don’t want to do something wrong that’s going to last 50 years. We need to get it correct. We need to be pitch-perfect.
FS: Is the mayor becoming more amenable to you chatting with other municipalities in the area?
SS: It’s nothing to that level of discussion at all. But we’ve talked. He recognizes it’s not our marketing efforts. I believe he’s recognized we are really, really doing everything we can — and that we’re sort of all out of ideas at this point. That doesn’t mean it’s going to change the situation. But I feel better. At least it promotes a different kind of dialogue, as opposed to, ‘Did you try this? You should try that. You’re not doing a good enough job here.’ We’re doing it. We’ve won for five years.
FS: What would it take to break the lease?
SS: The specifics of it, I can’t and wouldn’t get into. There’s no real breaking of the lease. It’s there. It’s a lease. We’re there. We have to play our games there until 2027. After that, we don’t have to play our games there. If I walked in and said, ‘Here’s $12 billion. Can you let us out of the lease?’ I think they’ll probably say OK. If I say, ‘Here’s a dollar. I want to leave in five years,’ they’re probably not going to say OK.
By the same token, when you leave, you have to have a place to go. It’s not as easy as moving into a house five miles away. It’s complex. The next house we build has to be a self-sustaining home.
FS: What are the realistic chances the Rays leave the Tampa Bay area?
SS: It’s very unrealistic. If it’s up to me, it’s very unrealistic. There’s certainly been a lot of discussion, from others within baseball, that we should get the hell out of there. It’s not in my makeup to do that. I am committed to doing whatever I can, until I can no longer do it, to make it work there.
FS: Is it safe to say that, eventually, there has to be a new stadium in Tampa Bay or you’ll sell the club?
SS: Eventually, yeah. I would suppose so. But if that happens, by doing that, I could be ensuring baseball is there anyhow. The other side is, in fairness, we receive a lot of revenue-sharing money each year.
It should be expected from other owners, if (we) put a winning product on the field, get to the playoffs and World Series, (they) shouldn’t have to share much money with (us) for the next couple years.
I think ours is the only franchise — maybe I’m mistaken — that has been to the World Series (recently) and we still had to take a lot of money in revenue sharing. The fact that all the other owners are consistently writing checks to us and see no way to get out of it, some of this will be their desires. … The decision can be taken out of my hands at some point. If you haven’t made any progress, and it’s not working where you are, (MLB could say), ‘We’re going to duke it out. This team is going to be somewhere else, whether it’s 10 miles away or 510 miles away.’
FS: Do you think Major League Baseball could work again in Montreal?
SS: Yes. I know it can.
SS: My gut. I was at Olympic Stadium the day after they got Bartolo Colon. I’ve been convinced — this is before I bought the (Rays) — that it would be an incredible place for baseball. That doesn’t mean my baseball team, but a baseball team.
FS: Do you think there will come a day when Montreal has a team again?
SS: In the next five years, no. In the next 20, yes.
FS: An expansion franchise or one that moves there?
SS: I think a franchise (that moves there). I know nothing. There’s no discussions. I don’t see any reason or need or desire for expansion — anytime in the next 10 years, certainly. The stadiums built in the 1990s are 20-year-old stadiums. They’ll be fine for another 20 years. If you look 20 years out, there could be population shifts and separation of corporations. And you need a decent-to-good corporate base to have a successful baseball franchise.
FS: Has the thought ever occurred to you to move your team to Montreal?
SS: I thought about it as a great baseball market. But this is probably three, four years ago. I was asked and pressed about it. I said I could think of seven (viable) places (for relocation). But I’m not looking. I just want to explore my backyard.
FS: Getting back to the roster, David Price will be two years from free agency at the end of this season. No matter what, by then you’re not going to have revenues from a new ballpark to sign him long term. What are the chances he’s going to be a Ray at this time next year?
SS: I expect him to be a Ray at this time next year, absolutely. I don’t envision a scenario that he’s not. Given some of the contracts signed recently by pitchers, it’s difficult to have a Cy Young Award winner in the prime of his career that fits into the Rays’ mold — even if our revenues are up. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
FS: Realistically, did you have to choose between signing Evan Longoria [who just signed a $100 million extension through 2022] and signing David?
SS: We could sign both. It all depends on the total dollars per year and what we’re willing to field around them.
Speaking about Evan in particular, he signed a deal with us originally and then re-upped to a much larger deal more recently. He has been nothing but extraordinarily complimentary of the way we’ve worked together. He’s been extremely happy. He will tell you it helped make him a better ballplayer. He’s been able to relax. He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s seeing what we’ve put around him. And I think he likes being in the area and being part of the organization.