Dream team

Could the owners of the Bolts and the Rays be a sports marriage made in heaven?

click to enlarge CHANGE OF VENUE? Could this view from the Channelside parking garage someday include a baseball stadium? - Divnek/Wikimedia Commons
Divnek/Wikimedia Commons
CHANGE OF VENUE? Could this view from the Channelside parking garage someday include a baseball stadium?

Throughout history, sustained greatness has often come in pairs. John and Paul, Fred and Ginger, Mick and Keith, Watson and Crick, even Jack and Diane, to name a few. Could the next great duo be Jeff and Stu, as in Lightning hockey owner Jeff Vinik and Rays baseball owner Stu Sternberg?

News of Vinik’s reported bid for the beleaguered Channelside Entertainment Complex has Tampa baseball fans playing the what-if game. Could it happen? Could Vinik and Sternberg put their heads, and more importantly their wallets, together and bring the Tampa Bay Rays to downtown Tampa?

Since the Trop lease limits all but pithy fantasy discussions among elected officials (see Buckhorn and Prom below), I figured I’d start the discussion in earnest.

A Rays future In St. Pete

The Rays’ relationship with St. Pete is like a marriage that’s run its course. As much as Bill Foster wants his constituents to believe the Rays must remain in St. Pete until lease death do them part in 2027, he must know that’s not the way this will play out. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, once the Rays failed in 2007 to get voters to approve a St. Pete waterfront ballpark, the city lost its sole opportunity to keep the Rays from leaving.

A Rays future in Hillsborough County

Tampa Mayor Bob “Put Me In, Coach” Buckhorn constantly waxes on in his parallel universe about taking the Rays to the prom if St. Pete declines to dance with Stu and Co. The same goes for Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken “Curveball” Hagan, absent the prom hypothetical. This is legacy stuff for these two… and both know it will take the City of Tampa and the Hillsborough County Commission working together to pull off a move to Hillsborough.

Why Downtown Tampa?

Ample parking is already available for baseball fans if a ballpark is built. This is important, since today the average parking structure costs about $15,000 per space to construct. In addition, Downtown Tampa has an increasing number of 24-hour residents, many of whom are young professionals, a potential new fan base that could sustain sufficient attendance for the 81 days and nights a year the Rays are in town. And that potential fan base is about to grow with the announcement last month that a Miami developer will build an additional 356 apartments in the Channelside District.

Why should Sternberg partner with Vinik?

There is no disputing that Sternberg and his team have constructed one of Major League Baseball’s most successful franchises on the field. For the past five years the Rays have beaten up on the Red Sox and Yankees while managing a team payroll somewhere in the neighborhood of what the Yankees pay Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. (Let’s face it: Jeter’s backyard on Davis Islands has better lighting than Tropicana Field.)

But as successful as Sternberg and the front-office whiz kids have been on the field, they still haven’t figured out how to successfully market their product. That’s where Vinik and his top lieutenant Todd Leiweke come in. They have managed, during the deepest recession in American history, to double the Lightning season ticket base, the lifeblood of any professional sports team, and have continued to fill the building on a nightly basis in spite of fielding a mediocre team. The Lightning missed the NHL playoffs this year, but that didn’t stop near-capacity crowds from showing up each night.

Vinik and Leiweke clearly have the special sauce that Sternberg needs to be successful off the field. In addition, the Lightning owner has created a reserve of good will with the Tampa community for his decision to spend his own millions to upgrade the Tampa Bay Times Forum. That popularity could be helpful for Sternberg if Stu decides he isn’t going to pay for the entire cost of construction of a new ballpark out of his own pocket. (Insert tongue in cheek.)

Of course Stu isn’t going to pay for the entire cost of a new ballpark. That’s not how it’s done in American sports these days. But the Great Recession has left Hillsborough County and Tampa, like most U.S. municipalities, nearly tapped out when it comes to funding new construction projects like ballparks. Couple that with the recent completion of the half-trillion-dollar art museum/nightclub/ballpark boondoggle built for the newly renamed Miami Marlins baseball team in South Florida, and most folks look at building a sports palace for a rich owner with a jaundiced eye. By my estimate, if Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa pooled all the revenue sources eligible to pay for construction of a new ballpark, they would only be able to come up with $100 million, which might pay for the left field foul pole, bullpens and the dugouts if they were lucky.

Absent a privately funded ballpark, Stu will have to go to the voters of Hillsborough with hat in hand and ask them to approve a new tax similar to the Community Investment Tax that voters approved in the mid-’90s to build the Glazers their palace. Bringing Jeff Vinik in would make that pitch to Hillsborough voters a tad easier.

And did I mention that Vinik owns a number of parcels in Channelside, and is negotiating to buy additional land, all of which could be developed into a ballpark or parking structures to increase available parking for a nearby new ballpark?

Hey Stu, give Jeff a call…

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