Ask Gary: Have the Rays decided to leave town?

by Gary Shelton on December 15, 2018 · 2 comments

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Saturday, 4 a.m.

Do you think Stu Sternberg and his partners have crunched the numbers and decided it's time to cash out and sell the team before the end of theTrop lease rather than spend millions of dollars on a new stadium? The only way a stadium gets built here is if the Rays put in multiples of the amount they have offered to this point. But if they sell they reap huge profits versus shelling out a ton of money to build a stadium nobody can guarantee will really improve attendance. The owner continues to talk a good game like they really want to be here but might they have already decided it's time to leave?

Larry Beller

Larry, I think it's been obvious for a while that the only clear way to make the Rays profitable is to get them out of town. I hate to say that, because I do like having a baseball team to follow. It's a great base for the community.

I don't know if Stu and the guys have decided they're going to leave. But I think they've decided they'd rather leave than spend a half-billion bucks to stay.

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But I'll be honest. If I were one of Stu's partners, or if you were, we'd be banging the drum to look around. I understand that Tampa doesn't have the money for a stadium lying around, but what community ever got baseball without building a home for it? I'm not saying that Tampa would be an answer, or that the money makes sense. But history tells us that when you lure a team from somewhere else, you usually have to build a stadium to do it. As I understand, Tampa wanted roughly half of the cost of the new joint. That's for a team that, by comparison, isn't making a lot of money.

I don't think the owners had to crunch any new numbers. They're stock brokers; they've known the numbers since before they bought the team. But I've been told that all of Stu's partners aren't as committed to making it work as he has been. I think it's a matter of time until the buyout reaches something they can afford. Then they'll sell the team (which would then be moved) or move it.

Hey, I hope I'm wrong. I'm hoping that the years it will take to move this team sees Montreal and Portland occupied by their own teams.

Again, I've always thought of this team as "what if I owned it." If I did, I'm afraid that Tampa Bay would be a bad place for it. You?

Do you legititmately think the Rays have a long-term future in the Tampa Bay area, or are we looking at a future team in Charlotte or Montreal, or just about anywhere else besides Tampa or St. Petersburg?

Peter Kerasotis

Peter, many of us on this side of the state have long doubted that there was a long-term future for baseball here. Think about this: After a 20-year wait in which the community told itself it couldn't wait for baseball, the team didn't sell out on the second night of its existence. It didn't sell out when Wade Boggs hit his 3,000th hit. The year after it went to the World Series, it didn't sell out a home series against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team it lost to in the Series.

I've heard all of the excuses, of where the park is located or whatever, and I've never bought them. Prices are affordable. The access is easy. The stadium isn't the best in the league, but it's covered on rainy days and it's cool on hot days. And it's major league baseball.

Still, the team is among the worst draws in professional sports on a yearly basis. So it's easy to surmise that, no, this isn't a great market.

Could the team move? Of course it could. The thing is, the team seems committed to playing here through 2027. Montreal could have a team by then. So could Portland and, I suppose, Charlotte.

Peter, I've never been convinced that Tampa would be any better. Oh, a new stadium in the population center would help some, maybe 5,000 a night. But it wouldn't turn this area into, say, St. Louis.  I've written it a ton of times, but you can't convince me there are so many fans in Tampa they'd fill the stadium every night, yet those same fans won't make a short drive on the interstate to get to the game. You've been to Wrigley. You've been to Fenway. Most parks are much harder to reach than the Trop.

I think, eventually, this will be someone else's team, and St. Pete will be another abandoned area where the fans are forgotten.

What are your latestodds on Jameis Winston being with the Bucs in 2019? On Dirk Koetter?  On Jason Licht?

Scott Myers

Before I lay any odds, I have to tell you. I could lose a straight-up bet on a game if you gave me the top two choices. I don't gamble because I'm terrible at it.

But as a layman, I'd say the odds are this.

With Koetter, I say there is only a 33 percent chance he's back, or that it's 2-1 that he'll get fired. The Glazers have been through a lot of coaches lately, so why would Koetter be different? Lovie didn't get a third year. Schiano didn't. Raheem Morris didn't get a fourth year. So why would Koetter? If he finishes with three straight wins, sure, he's got an argument that his team is improved despite the quarterback flux. But no one thinks they'll finish 3-0, which means another losing season.

With Licht, I say it's 50-50. He seems to be the trusted one among the Glazers. The thing is, a lot of general managers get two head coaches, and this is Licht's second. He's had some questionable draft picks, too, which have helped to retard the growth of his team. The Glazers may just decide to blow it up the way they did with Schiano and Mark Dominik.

Winston is safer. No, he's not the most polished quarterback in the world. We all know that. We know about his immaturity and his turnovers. But I've written a lot about quarterbacks his age or younger. Even those in the Hall of Fame struggled before they were 25 year old.

So are you going to throw Winston out now and go through the same growing pains with another quarterback while realizing he doesn't play in the secondary and he doesn't block defensive ends and he isn't a running back. Those team flaws are weak spots of their own.

I think that if you don't keep Koetter, then you hire a coach based on his belief that he can win with Winston. I'd say he has a 75 percent chance of staying.

Your odds?

Turn out the lights, the party is over. The Rays do not want to find a site here. They are goners. Agree or disagree?

Jim Willson

I agree that they're goners. I don't necessarily agree they don't want to find a site here.

I've wondered about that, too, to be honest. Was there a deal to be made where they would sta?. And I think they would ... if Tampa funded almost all of the stadium. But a franchise that isn't making money isn't going to spend a half of a billion dollars to stay in a risky (at best) market. There is nothing but words to say their attendance would be better in Tampa.

You can argue the right and wrong of it all day, and I'll see your point. But the history of it is that communities build stadiums for teams they're trying to lure. Do you think the Raiders would be going to Las Vegas if they didn't have a great new facility waiting. No, they wouldn't.

I know, I know. We aren't Vegas. But a pro sports owner isn't going to leave one site because he can't make money and throw untold millions into another site where he can't make money.

Now, would it be right for Tampa to spend almost a billion dollars for a team that doesn't draw more fans? No. I'm not arguing that. I'm just saying there is no proof that the Rays have definitely decided to leave.

That said, I can't see an end game where they team stays here. Does it commit to St. Petersburg, where the attendance is lousy? Does it try for another site in Tampa, even though the politicians will be the same? Does it wait out its lease until it is affordable to can buy it out?

The choices don't seem very good, do they? And we come back to the same question: What would you do if it was your team? Would you keep it here or go elsewhere for scads of money?

It’s impressive what Pete Carroll has done this year with the Seattle, after losing so many excellent players. Who do you think is the coach of the year front runner?

Carlos Ubinas

The NFL coach of the year vote is always a strange one. It happens too early, like most seasonal awards, which means the post-season doesn't count nearly as much as it should. Consider this for a minute: Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, who had been a destitute franchise, and never won coach of the year.

That said, I'd go with Sean McVay of the Rams. He's lost only twice this year, and he's helped to turn Jared Goff into a star.

The other candidates? New Orleans' Sean Peyton has to be a candidate. Kansas City's Andy Reid jettisoned his quarterback to go with young Patrick Mahomes, which has to give him some bonus points.  And the Chargers' Anthony Lynn has kept his team grounded despite the franchise moving to Los Angeles.

Those would be my top four picks.

The Lightning are off to a great start this season even with their top goalie being injured for a good part of the season. They have speed, scoring power, a good enough defense and everyone plays unselfishly for the betterment of the team. We've learned that a great regular season doesn't guarantee success in the post-season, but does this team look like the most complete Lighting team in their history?

Larry Beller

It does. It's certainly the deepest team the Bolts have had. I don't think there has ever been another Lightning team that could have gotten 14 wins from its backup goalie before Christmas. Consider; In their Cup-winning season, backup goalie John Grahame won 18 games as a backup/part-time starter, but he won only four before Christmas. Grahame won so many because Nikolai Khabibulin was wobbly during much of the regular season.

Now, you can argue that, at the top, that Cup-winning Lightning team was as good or better with Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards (a combined 96 goals). But that team wasn't as fast and it wasn't as deep.

Does that mean this team will win the Cup, too. Of course not. Post-season hockey is about getting hot at the right time and drawing the right matchups. If you remember, that team avoided Boston and Ottawa in the playoffs, and Calgary was the sixth-seeded team out of the West.

But, yeah, this team is fun. As Jon Cooper said the other night, it can win in a lot of different styles. I say we just sit back and enjoy it for now.

What do you consider to be the 5 top sports stories of the year...Tampa Bay edition?

Jim Willson

Wow. That's a pretty interesting question. I hate to answer it, because I'll leave one out and look like an idiot because of it. But here goes.

1. The great start of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Again, it's only half of a season, but the Bolts have been terrific. They're deep and they're versatile, and it will be disappointing if they don't make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup.

2. The outside-the-box "starter" strategy by the Rays. I think that was an even bigger story than Blake Snell's Cy Young season. It changed the game. Other teams are going to try it now.

3. The fizzle at the top of the NFL draft for the Bucs. You didn't say that had been to be  stories with great endings, remember? But to turn the seventh pick and the 38th pick into the seasons that Vita Vea and Ronald Jones have had was just tragic. Vea might be okay eventually. But it could be a draft to haunt this team for years.

4. Snell. He was wonderful. He went from five wins to 21 to capture the Cy Young Award. He's 26, which means that several good years could lie ahead.

5. The Lightning was good last year, too, but they were shut out in game seven by Washington. It was disappointing, but Washington was just to physical in the series.

Other stories to consider: The Rays end discussions over their new stadium; Mike Smith fired in midseason; Jameis Winston suspended; Steve Yzerman steps down; Ryan Fitzpatrick's great start; USF's collapse at the end of the season; the Rays win 90; Kiermaier hurt...again; Tiger Woods makes a run locally; the NHL all-star game comes to town.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Beller December 15, 2018 at 7:55 am

What’s not clear to me is why in the 13th ranked TV market, the Rays don’t do a lot better with their TV contract. That’s were the big money is in baseball. The Rays cry poor saying their TV contract does not generate significant income. It’s easy to see that the biggest markets will get a lot more TV money but there are plenty of smaller markets that spend a ton more than the Rays. Of course those markets draw more fans to the games but if the franchise is moved to a smaller TV market won’t they have to deal with the same problem? That’s what I’m referring to when I talk about crunching numbers.

To me moving to Tampa accomplishes very little because it’s the same market. A new stadium anywhere in Tampa Bay will have some impact on attendance initially but over a longer period the same attendance issues will surface. The Rays owners know that. They aren’t blind to see that this market can not support a baseball franchise at the gate. A better TV contract would sure help though.

Stu Sternberg has said he will not move this franchise. He’d sell the team before doing that. I was wondering if you think that’s how it will go? If I were a partner of this franchise I’d be in Sternberg’s ear to sell. Cash out before the ugly mess of relocating gets real and enjoy the rest of our lives as very wealthy former MLB owners.

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Gary Shelton December 15, 2018 at 11:27 am

My guess is thqt the lease is iron clad with a huge payout. Stu seems to have convinced his partner that they money they’d get to sell just keeps going up, so why not sit on it until it can listen to other markets? Sternberg has said he won’t sell, but that isn’t a legally binding contract. Owners have fibbed fore.

The thing is, the commissioner likes Sternberg. There was talk before, if you remember, about him selling this team and getting another one.

It’ll be interesting to see this play out.

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