One of the struggles of being a "small-market team" is the financial restrictions inherent in not having a massive, revenue-generating fan base.
That is not to say the Rays are not a popular team, as of July 2015 the Rays average in the top half of ratings in baseball, besting the household viewership of several large-market teams. Unfortunately, the Rays are not able to parlay this popularity into a strength.
Tampa Bay's television contract pays a mere $20m in revenue each year, approximately 25% of what the Rays might be able to expect under current renegotiation trends. Years-long reporting has claimed the Rays would be able to sign a new contract with Fox Sports after the 2016 season, but the principal owner Stu Sternberg says that's not the case.
Not being able to renegotiate their television contract dramatically alters the current state of the franchise. Baseball has never been more popular, but with a stadium positioned in the least ideal part of Tampa Bay, the Rays cannot capitalize, while other teams (like the Diamondbacks, who have the same ratings as the Rays) see the benefits of quadrupling their revenue.
Money doesn't grow on trees
If the problem is revenue in the short term, however, why not let the Rays owners appeal to their Wall Street roots, and make a portion of the team available for purchase?
This idea was put forth by community member "Jrjs" when he offered, "Let the community buy the team. Fixes most problems in my opinion." He may have a point.
Tampa Bay will be able to restructure their television contract eventually, but are suffering financial constraints until that windfall arrives, and the ownership group (led by Stu Sternberg) has otherwise given the team as much as they can to succeed.
Despite its regional popularity, one of the main criticisms of the Rays is that the Tampa Bay community seemingly does not support the team, due to factors like low attendance and the presence of generations-old Yankees and Red Sox fans.
Nearly twenty-years young, the team is still trying to find its feet (and its stadium), but by opening up the ownership to the community, the Tampa Bay region at large can show their long-term commitment and support of the franchise, while boosting the short term potential of the on-field product.
And there's even precedent. Only one major league team in American sports is publicly owned, but that aspect of the team's ownership has transformed a tiny-town's NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, into one of the most popular franchises in that sport.
The Green Bay Packers Example
The Green Bay Packers sell shares of common stock in the franchise, of which there are about 5 million shares outstanding. Should the team ever be taken over by a single ownership group, financial assets of the team would be directed back into the community through charitable local groups. The focus is on the Green Bay community, through and through.
Ownership in the Packers is limited in that no one individual is allowed to own more than 200k shares (4% of the team), and team operations is controlled by a 45-member board, with seven executive members overseeing day-to-day activities. Full stock rights are detailed as follows on wikipedia:
All shareholders receive are voting rights, an invitation to the corporation's annual meeting, and an opportunity to purchase exclusive shareholder-only merchandise. Shares of stock cannot be resold, except back to the team for a fraction of the original price. While new shares can be given as gifts, transfers are technically allowed only between immediate family members once ownership has been established.
This style of ownership appeals to the heart of sport, in my opinion. An entire community of people are able to gather, support, and even direct the interest of the club. After all, any sports team might be owned and licensed by a particular person or limited group, but the heart of the team belongs with the fans. This style of ownership makes that far more tangible.
This style of ownership does not perfectly match what the Rays owners might seek, but it's possible that current owners could diminish their controlling interest to create a publicly traded portion of the franchise.
While the Packers are the only such example in the United States, a recent example appeared in English Football (soccer), and is an even more compelling story.
The A.F.C. Wimbledon Example
Football clubs in England go back for generations, as even the smallest regions maintain and support football clubs across four divisions in the sport. It's something akin to the minor leagues in baseball, but with more than 100 years of fierce loyalty for even the Class-A clubs.
One such club is A.F.C. Wimbledon, located in the district of London that goes by the same name. The town's football club was originally known as Wimbledon F.C. and was founded in 1889, affectionately known by their supporters as "The Don's" after the -don suffix of the district's name.
In 2002, the owner of Wimbledon F.C. saw more financial opportunity in moving his franchise to the newly formed town of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Despite public protest, he was permitted to move the more than 100-year old franchise, in order to maintain the team's position in the fourth tier of league football (which includes high-profile and high-payout competitions like the F.A. Cup), and chose the audacious name of "M. K. Dons."
Outraged, the community in Wimbledon formed their own football club, choosing the name A.F.C. Wimbledon and competing through the community levels until finally breaking back into the league football in 2011. and have remained in the fourth tier since that time. They even beat the M.K. Dons for the first time in 2014.
More importantly, the club's biggest victory came just yesterday, when the franchise won the rights to purchase and build a location at its old stadium grounds at Plough Lane in Wimbledon, now a greyhound racing track, less that two miles from the famed nearby tennis facility. To facilitate the move, the club will sell its current location, called Kingsmeadow in Kingston upon Thames, to the Premier League club Chelsea F.C. to be their new training ground.
All of these successes have come on the backs of the supporters, who control a 75% interest in the club through a British IPS non-profit called "The Dons Trust". Becoming an owner requires the purchase of a share in the club for £25, and maintaining a voting interest requires annual renewal. One share equals one vote in the club's activities, and any owner can stand for election to the Board of Directors. The other 25% is a non-controlling equity interest that was used to purchase the club's current stadium at Kingsmeadow.
This model seems to be less of a fit for the Rays, but raises an interesting question for public ownership in light of building a new stadium. Each step in the process for A.F.C. Wimbledon to sell their current grounds, to build a proposal for a new stadium, and to purchase that location has required ownership vote. The result has been even fiercer loyalty to the town of Wimbledon, as intended.
If the Rays chose a similar model in public financing, it would reflect the ultimate commitment to the Tampa Bay region on behalf of the franchise.
More money, more problems?
The examples of teams that are publicly owned and financed are few because they seem to be exceptions to the way sports teams are typically run. A publicly financed team means publicly available financial statements, which can diminish negotiating positions across the board, from new television contracts to new stadium financing to current and prospective player contracts.
Furthermore, public ownership can be quite complicated. The team's assets may not be very liquid, but they are closely held and easily controlled. Spreading ownership and control among several pieces complicates the decision making process in an industry where unilateral decisions are common practice for most organizations.
A proposal to allow public financing of the Rays would certainly be unique and nuanced, but the effort may help boost the club's short term potential by increasing the financial resources of the club, while cementing the long term position of the franchise by maintaining its interests in Tampa Bay through community ownership.
Such a position would breathe life into the team's brand and possibly elevate it's focus nationally, possibly driving the value of the franchise even higher. It's something the Rays should consider.