Right now, a group of rich guys want a new baseball stadium.
They’ve been doing everything from saying they'll hang passive aggressive banners at Tropicana Field, making threats to split seasons with Canada or just move entirely, boycotting city council meetings, and by all appearances, getting cozy op-eds published in the local newspaper of record calling for them to get their way.
These rich guys are, of course, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, and Tampa Bay Times mega-loaner Darryl Shaw, a local developer who would very much like the Rays’ new stadium to relocate to his giant development across the Bay.
In a recent piece from the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, which includes CEO Paul Tash, the paper somehow links the baseball team’s playoff loss to owner Sternberg not getting a stadium and leaving town.
The title of the piece, “The Tampa Bay Rays loss hurts. Losing the Rays would hurt a lot more” isn’t exactly subtle with its intentions. The editorial kicks off by saying that the current team outperforms, despite having a punishingly low payroll (mostly because Sternberg chooses to keep it low), and that this “motley assortment” of players still wins, despite being “underappreciated,” which is shown by years of record low attendance.
“Unfortunately, not that many fans show up to watch at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg,” the piece continues. “For years, the team has ranked near the bottom in paid attendance. It’s hard to blame a good team with bad attendance from exploring new options for where to play home games.”
Nevermind that MLB teams earn money in plenty of ways, like licencing, TV deals, etc., but it’s beyond ridiculous to pin any blame on anyone other than ownership. The Rays haven’t failed to win a World Series because of the fans, who, last we checked, aren’t on the payroll. They’ve failed because Sternberg won’t open his wallet to attract or keep star players, and his stinginess is most apparent when it comes to his new stadium.
And this is where the Tampa Bay Times has a hard time talking about its friends.
“As every fan knows by now,” writes the editorial, “the Rays have pitched splitting home games with Montreal as the most promising way for the team to maintain a presence in the Tampa Bay area for the next 30 years. And the idea of a new outdoor stadium in or near Tampa’s Ybor City has the right people talking.”
The “right people talking.” LOL.
“Now is the time to build on that momentum,” it continues. “The Rays have to keep making their case to a skeptical public. They need to sell the community on why it should support building a new stadium for a part-time baseball team.”
Clearly there’s a lot of “selling” going on in this column.
Beside the fact that publicly subsidized stadiums are proverbial drains on local economies, the main problem here is that the Tampa Bay Times doesn’t mention that the prospect of a new stadium moving to Ybor directly benefits Shaw, who is also a member of FBN Partners.
Back in 2017, FBN—which stands for “Florida’s Best Newspaper” and includes a slew of other rich guys—loaned the Times a total of $15 million. Shaw is also the developer of the proposed “Gas Worx” project in Ybor.
In a Times story from last July, Shaw stated that he does in fact want the Rays’ new stadium included in his Gas Worx development.
“We very much hope that it will happen,” Shaw said. “I’ve always maintained that this development is for Ybor, and the Rays coming is not essential for the development to go forward. So the plan you see is probably what we will build — unless the Rays come, and then we would re-evaluate.”
All this is to say, it is incredibly weird, and unethical, that the Times can’t muster up the strength to mention that the guy who loaned them millions of dollars also wants this stadium in Tampa.
As David Uberti wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, traditional newspapers and local television stations often have a hard time discussing new stadiums because the means are shared.
“Local media are stakeholders in the growth machine within a city, so they benefit from the presence of a team,” said University of Alberta professor Daniel Mason to CJR. “If a franchise moves, the first person to lose his job is the sports reporter.”
Cities are increasingly less and less interested in paying for stadiums, and selling Tampa on a new stadium that may be used less than half the time is an even tougher sell.
As Twitter user, and frequent Sternberg critic, @stadiumshadow recently pointed out, the Times has already slammed the concept of funneling public dollars to private entities.
In an April 2016 op-ed, the board blasted then Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to privatize Enterprise Florida, a now-public private economic development association. “Shelling out millions in public money to private corporations was never a novel, responsible or sustainable strategy for creating jobs in the Sunshine State,” said the board.
Nevertheless, this didn’t stop the Times editorial board from publishing another piece just last week, titled “Good to see conversations heat up about Rays stadium,” where the paper yet again didn’t mention Shaw’s role with FBN Partners.
“Tampa and Hillsborough county officials said last week the Rays were narrowing their stadium search to a site at the western edge of the historic Ybor City district. The property falls within the boundaries of the city’s Ybor City Community Redevelopment Area, which could mean millions in potential city-generated dollars for a new ballpark,” wrote the board. “As conceived, the stadium would be multi-use, hosting the Rays, spring training, the Rays-owned Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer franchise and traveling sports tournaments. Darryl Shaw, who leads an investor group that bought the property in May, said in September that if all sides coalesce around the site “we will work to bring their vision to life.”
Unsurprisingly, the Tampa Bay Times has actually been ripped for this very thing before.
When Tash first announced that FBN Partners would loan millions to the struggling paper, he didn’t disclose that Shaw was one of the investors, or most of them at all for that matter. It wasn’t until reporter Noah Pransky found out about Shaw that Tash eventually admitted that he was part of the group, which we already knew included Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. At the time, Tash claimed the paper wanted to respect the privacy of the investors.
Since its inception, the FBN deal has drawn plenty of public scrutiny, even from the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times.
“The value of transparency is a really good journalistic value,” Kelly McBride, then-vice president Poynter said in 2017, adding that, “The value of competitive information is a really good business value. The business has to work so that the overall journalism enterprise can work. Sometimes those values come directly in competition with each other.”
McBride added that she thought keeping the names of FBN partners out of the news might be “keeping the investors happy.”
“I think that some of those investors — and I don’t know this — but it’s possible that they would not have made the investment” if anonymity had not been promised,” McBride added.
To this day, we still don’t know all the details of the FBN loan, or who all the investors are.
But talking about their friends seems to be a recurring problem for the Times editorial board. In a November, 2019 op-ed, the board slammed then-president Trump’s opportunity zone tax loophole, which was by all definitions bad and deserved to be shat on.
However, TBT only mentioned FBN Partners Darryl Shaw and Jeff Vinik’s opportunity zones at the very end of the piece, and essentially defended them by stating that while opportunity zones are often bad, Vinik’s and Shaw’s are good, actually.
“Of course, some of the criticism of opportunity zones is easier from the outside looking in,” wrote the board. “The opportunity zone tied to Vinik’s Water Street development in downtown Tampa covers blocks that were vacant for years. (Vinik is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.) The Ybor City zone covers land that is dominated by warehouses and could be a site for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium. In Pinellas County, there are 16 opportunity zones -- including the Tropicana Field site that is ripe for redevelopment.”
“Ripe for redevelopment.” Please fire me out of a t-shirt cannon.
The Times’ mental gymnastics for these projects is beyond impressive. The editorial board clearly wants this stadium to happen, and regardless of your feelings towards Water Street, it’s most certainly a grift. It’s pretty damn convenient that the project is next door to Vinik’s hockey stadium, and despite the purpose of opportunity zones—to spur growth in poor neighborhoods—Water Street is placed directly in Tampa’s wealthiest zip code.
Of course, these things may just be bad optics for the Times. Maybe this St. Petersburg-based newspaper just loves its home baseball team, and now wants Tampa taxpayers to hoof the bill for a new stadium.
So if that’s the case, why not just slap a disclaimer on these pro-stadium op-eds? What is so hard about that? The Times reporters often do this when it comes to their award-winning reporting. Why doesn’t this journalistic standard apply to the editorial board?
“For the last four years, we covered the FBN Partners without regard to their participation in the loan,” said Times Communications Director and editorial board member, Sherri Day, in an email to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “That will not change.”
The Times told readers last August that the $21 million sale of their printing plant to hedge fund vultures Alden Global helped payback the “majority” of its loan to FBN Partners. Day confirmed this and stated that, “The FBN Partners loan has been paid in full. There is no outstanding balance.”
However, this is still worth mentioning at the end of an op-ed. Paying off a loan doesn’t change the fact that it happened, that money exchanged hands—and purportedly saved the Times—and can still appear to influence coverage.
So again, why not fully disclose this information every single time? Why allow the readers to imagine Darryl Shaw having dinner with Paul Tash at Bern’s Steak House and slamming his fists on the table demanding more op-eds? Why not just tell the public who’s in the bullpen?
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