The Rays like Tampa Bay. Major League Baseball doesn't.
That's the message Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg related Thursday in his most forceful public commentary to date on the long-term outlook for the team, whose attendance has not matched its recent performance on the field.
"Major League Baseball doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area," Sternberg told Hillsborough County commissioners in a lively morning session that ran twice as long as its scheduled 30 minutes.
Sternberg spoke to Hillsborough commissioners at their invitation. Some commissioners have made little secret they would like the Rays to move to Hillsborough County.
The team has a contract to play at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field through 2027, and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has threatened to sue any entities that try to lure the Rays away from the city.
That restricted Hillsborough commissioners from directly asking Thursday what everyone wanted to know: possible locations for a new ballpark, including prospects for relocating the team to Tampa.
Thus hampered, Sternberg and the Rays danced around that central question, with the Rays owner instead spending most of his time talking about how displeased Major League Baseball and other owners were with the Rays' poor attendance. The Rays say they need a new stadium to remain competitive.
Sternberg equated the Rays' attendance impact on baseball's revenue sharing arrangements as a form of "welfare" neither he nor officials from other teams found comfortable.
Late Thursday afternoon, Major League Baseball officials issued a news release from New York headquarters saying Commissioner Bud Selig has had conversations with Sternberg and is disappointed with the current situation in the Tampa Bay market.
"The status quo is simply not sustainable," the release stated. "The Rays have been a model organization, averaging nearly 92 wins per year since 2008 and participating in the postseason three times, including their inaugural World Series in 2008. Their .565 winning percentage over the last five years is second among all American League clubs and third in all of Major League Baseball.
"Last year, the 30 major league clubs averaged nearly 2.5 million in total attendance; the Rays, who finished with a 90-72 record, drew 1,559,681, which ranked last in the game.
"We are hopeful that the market will respond in kind to a club that has done a marvelous job on and off the field."
Some baseball analysts have hinted in recent years that the team's attendance woes might eventually force the league to contract, eliminating the Tampa Bay franchise.
Although alluding to the league's displeasure with the team, Sternberg said losing a franchise would be a complicated matter that does not appear to be imminent. He said he has not lost hope the franchise can be successful here.
"We do think about the future," he said. "We have to take some time to plan a stadium. You don't just snap your fingers."
"We are very committed to the area. It's a 50- to 100-year thing. I want to keep doing this and I'd like for my kids (to follow) after me."
Losing the team to contraction, if it ever happened, would not occur for at least several years. An agreement between the 30 major league clubs and the Major League Baseball Players Association precludes shrinking the leagues through at least the 2016 season.
In addition, contraction likely would require two teams to be eliminated to avoid scheduling complications.
County Commission chairman Ken Hagan, who arranged Thursday's session that will be replicated before the Pinellas County Commission next week, said it's not a matter of whether the Rays will relocate but when and where.
"Tropicana Field is not a sustainable long-term option," Hagan said.
Sternberg said he had no preferred location for a ballpark nor timetable for when a decision must be made. As he has often mentioned, he said he did not expect the Rays to be playing at Tropicana Field through 2027, when the team's contract with the city of St. Petersburg ends.
The Rays drew 2.5 million fans, an average of 30,942 a game, in the team's inaugural season in 1998. That dropped to 1.6 million in 1999, the highest attendance until 2008 when the Rays stunned many fans by appearing in the World Series, drawing 1.8 million fans in that pennant-winning season.
But post-World Series euphoria translated into an attendance increase of only 63,006 the following year. The Rays have either made the playoffs or been in serious contention every year since then, but attendance dipped slightly in 2010 and 2011 and rose only modestly last year to an average of 19,255 a game.
Normally, winning solves all attendance problems, which has been the case in other cities, said Michael Kalt, the Rays senior manager of development and business affairs.
A winning team and lackluster attendance means something else, he said.
"It's not a knock on the area," Kalt said. "It's not a lack of appreciation of the fans. The fundamental issue is the location of the building."
Rays officials have focused on Tropicana Field's downtown St. Petersburg location not falling within the sweet spot of the area's 30-minute drive time population. One-third of the Ray's fan base is from Hillsborough County, one-quarter from Pinellas and the remainder from the outlying seven-county region.
Hagan said financing for a future stadium would have to be carefully structured so as not to burden taxpayers with "another Raymond James Stadium sweetheart deal."
Sternberg said he thinks a deal could be reached for a new stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay.
"We need to be perfect in getting it right this time around," Sternberg concluded in his presentation to Hillsborough commissioners. "I own the team, I control it, but this is not Stuart Sternberg's team. My intent is to have it be Tampa Bay's team through 2100."