If Major League Baseball ever thrives in the Tampa Bay region with a stadium regularly full of fans, that will come as a surprise to the people who run the sport.
Thursday, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg told the Hillsborough County Commission just what MLB thinks of this area's ability to support baseball.
"MLB at this point doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area. They don't care if it's Tampa or St. Pete or Clearwater," said Sternberg.
Later in the day, Major League Baseball confirmed that feeling. They released a statement that read in part:
"The Commissioner has had conversations with Stuart Sternberg and is disappointed with the current situation in the Tampa Bay market. The status quo is simply not sustainable."
This comes as no surprise to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
"I appreciate Mr. Sternberg's candor, especially answering that question because he finally shared publicly what he has been sharing with me in confidence over the last couple of years," Foster said.
Foster says the statement should serve as a wake up call for area baseball fans and suggested the only thing that has kept the team here is that much discussed lease with the city of St. Pete that runs out in 2027.
That said, he thinks any regional look at a new stadium should include a site in Pinellas County, not just Hillsborough County.
Ryan Neubauer doesn't share that view.
He is the executive director of Build it Downtown Tampa, a group determined to get a new stadium for the Rays in Tampa.
"This is the center of the region, you have the critical mass that downtown Tampa has that any sports team can feed off of," Neubauer said.
And while both men differ on where a new Rays stadium should sit, they agree on one thing: Major League Baseball has it wrong, this is an area fit to support baseball.
"This is bigger than all of us, we must be able to demonstrate as a region that we can support Major League Baseball wherever located in Tampa Bay," said Foster.
"We've got to give them a reason to believe," said Neubauer.
Stu Sternberg says he was "deflated" when the team began winning on the field, but off the field, no one would talk about the issues involving Tropicana Field.
"Because what do we do now? We are winning baseball games and it was crickets out there as far as business leaders and people in that specific area, in support of the stadium," said Sternberg.
Sternberg and his top executives came to Hillsborough County Commission on Thursday. They couldn't talk about possible locations for a new stadium or even really get into whether Hillsborough County is the right place for the Rays. The team's contract with St. Petersburg won't allow those kinds of discussions.
Instead, the Rays talked about the challenges they face, like where the stadium currently is.
Mark Kalt, senior VP with the Rays said, "Less than a one quarter of the area's population is within a 30-minute drive to Tropicana Field. We have only 650,000 people within a 30-minute drive of the Trop…We want to get into this discussion. We want to engage the region to solve this problem. To find out where is the best place for a ballpark, to establish this franchise, reestablish it."
The team told commissioners, one third of Rays fans live in Hillsborough County. One quarter live in Pinellas. The rest are from the other seven-county area.
Sternberg said he was stunned when he got resistance from leaders in St. Petersburg about exploring other locations.
"We do need some cooperation. And a body of water shouldn't be the defining point. It should be about the people. What's best for the community."
The team's attendance last year was around 19,000 a game -- a far cry from the 30,000 league average.
Sternberg says he's heard from Major League Baseball many times. He knows they can shut down this team tomorrow if they wanted to.
He says MLB has lost faith in Tampa Bay being a viable market for baseball.
"They say, 'How much more evidence do we need that it's not going to work there, Stu?'"
Kalt said the next stadium has to be the right fit.
"We don't have the luxury of getting this wrong. At the end of the day, a baseball team is a retail business. You need to locate in a place where your customers can get to you quickly, easily and efficiently."
Commissioner Ken Hagan says now more than ever, he feels Hillsborough County and Tampa is the right place for baseball.
"Absolutely no doubt. And the demographics back it up. The people and the business leaders are in this area. It'll be what's best for the team."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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