The recent news about the SEC's investigation into the Marlins' new stadium has stirred up conversation in the Tampa Bay area. It's been awhile since we've talked about the Rays' own stadium issues, and the first time we've spoken with Noah Pransky about the matter. For those of you who don't know, Noah is an investigative reporter for the local CBS affiliate, WTSP, and has maintained the blog ShadowOfTheStadium since 2009, chronically any and all stadium related business. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. As always, enjoy.
Erik Hahmann: What is your opinion on the stance Mayor Foster has taken regarding the stadium issue? Is he doing the right thing by playing hardball?
Noah Pransky: Mayor Bill Foster is a very intelligent, well-studied man who also happens to be a lawyer by trade. He knew the track record of teams leveraging cities for subsidies, so since he took office in January 2010, he's refused to give up any of his delicate leverage. He's approached the stadium saga as a litigator and his refusal to make contract concessions to the team seems to mirror the team's refusal to make contract concessions to the city. In the big picture, he has done a good job of protecting the interests of his constituents.
EH: Attendance is always a hot topic in the area. What's been the biggest variable affecting attendance of games at Tropicana Field?
NP: There are a lot of things that hurt attendance at The Trop, but ultimately, it comes down to the willingness of Tampa Bay residents to drive to a baseball game. This is not a traditional baseball market and most "Rays fans" aren't going to The Trop for nine great innings of baseball. Instead, Tampa Bay residents go to the Trop for the entertainment experience, which may also include time at the ballpark bars, the kids' activities in the concourse, and the ability to tell their friends they went to a cool event. But there's a perception that going to The Trop isn't as "cool" as going to see the Lightning at the Forum or the Gators at The Swamp. Maybe the perception is fueled by the team's complaints about the ballpark, but the problem is very real.
EH: Fill in the blank (and why); If the Rays and the powers that be don't agree on a new stadium by _____, the team's departure from the market becomes a matter of when, not if."
NP: If the Rays and the powers that be don't agree on a new stadium by 2027, the team's departure from the market becomes a matter of when, not if."
From a legal standpoint, the Rays have little leverage to break their use agreement. While I don't think the Rays will be playing in The Trop in 15 years, I do anticipate many years of slow, deliberate, uncomfortable posturing. To set any arbitrary deadline would be foolish.
EH: What is your impression of the state of the Rays finances? Do you trust the leaked documents on Deadspin? If so, what do they indicate to you?
NP: I think the silence from baseball over the leaked Deadspin documents probably indicates the financial numbers were pretty legitimate. Most years, the Rays probably turn a profit, albeit modest. And while they may have revenue sharing to thank for it, revenue sharing was part of the business model the owners bought into six years ago. The owners have done a phenomenal job producing on-field success while maintaining their off-field business value, but any good business owner would always be looking for ways to improve the bottom line. It may be the only avenue for the team to spend more money on players.
EH: On that note, Forbes recently reported that the team is worth an estimated $331 million, up 66% from Sternburg's original $200 million investment. What effect, if any, do you see that having on the possible financing of a new stadium?
NP: Forbes wouldn't estimate the value of any business at $331 million if it didn't think the company was netting eight-figure profits each year. To get public subsidies, you need public support; and every time a piece of news comes out about Rays' profits or Stu Sternberg's wealth, it chips away a tiny bit of sympathy from the public.
EH: Sternberg has come under fire for his rather candid comments about the finances and about the stadium issue - specifically right after the playoff loss to Texas. Do you think the criticism is fair?
NP: You have to applaud any public figure for shooting from the hip. Wouldn't it be fun if Mark Cuban owned here? But the timing of Sternberg's comments in October rubbed some fans the wrong way because they saw it as a slight to their loyalty.
EH: According to Jeff Passan's Yahoo! article "25 of the game's 30 teams have built a new stadium or undertaken major renovations on an old one" since 1991. Do you believe the Marlins' swindling of money will have an affect on how new stadiums -- like a hypothetical new Rays facility -- are funded in the future?
NP: Every time a bit of bad press comes out about a stadium effort, it makes the task that much harder for other teams looking for ballparks. But people also have short memories, and areas that swore off public subsidies at one time eventually agreed to them years later. I don't think anything in Miami will doom the Rays' efforts unless secret financial documents are made public and cast the Rays' situation a lot more favorable than they currently depict.