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Sternberg seeking long-term ballpark solution

TAMPA, Fla. -- Principal owner Stuart Sternberg expressed his desire to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay for the long haul despite the team's well-documented attendance issues. He added, however, that Major League Baseball as an industry, "at this point, doesn't believe anymore in the Tampa Bay area," explaining, ultimately, a blueprint for long-term success in the market overall needs to take shape.

During an hourlong Hillsborough County Commission meeting on Thursday morning, Sternberg also said that "[MLB doesn't] care if it's Tampa or St. Pete or Clearwater. It's the Tampa Bay area."

Sternberg said the frustration with Tampa Bay's attendance among MLB officials and other team owners dates back to the 2008 season, when the Rays transformed from one of the worst teams in baseball into the American League champions. That turnaround sparked five straight winning seasons and led to three playoff appearances. Success on the field has yet to translate into increased attendance and revenue.

The Rays ranked 26th in attendance in 2008, 23rd in '09, 22nd in '10, 29th in '11 and 30th in '12. The "fundamental issue" behind those low numbers, according to Sternberg and three other Rays front office members on Thursday, is that Tropicana Field is too far away from the demographic and business center of Tampa.

The Rays signed a lease through 2027, and they are bound to an agreement that prohibits them from negotiating or discussing specific stadium alternatives. So Sternberg, team president Matt Silverman and senior vice presidents Michael Kalt and Mark Fernandez didn't lay out a timeline for starting construction on a new stadium or say where they would like to build it. But they did present statistics and studies supporting their belief that staying at Tropicana Field won't work.

"I still don't believe we'll be playing there in 2027," Sternberg said. "But as a year-in, year-out, I intend to keep going forward."

"It's not a knock on the area, and it certainly doesn't indicate a lack of appreciation for our fans -- we have some of the best fans in baseball," added Kalt, the team's senior vice president of development and business affairs. "But when you strip all of that away, we have a fundamental issue with the location of this building within a market that's already challenging."

Major League Baseball issued a statement Thursday afternoon regarding the Rays.

"The Commissioner has had conversations with Stuart Sternberg and is disappointed with the current situation in the Tampa Bay market," MLB said in a release. "The status quo is simply not sustainable. The Rays have been a model organization, averaging nearly 92 wins per year since 2008 and participating in the postseason three times, including their inaugural World Series in 2008. Their .565 winning percentage over the last five years is second among all American League clubs and third in all of Major League Baseball. Last year, the 30 Major League clubs averaged nearly 2.5 million in total attendance; the Rays, who finished with a 90-72 record, drew 1,559,681, which ranked last in the game. The club is an eager contributor to worthy causes in the Tampa and St. Petersburg communities and takes pride in meeting the social responsibilities that come with being a Major League franchise. We are hopeful that the market will respond in kind to a club that has done a marvelous job on and off the field." 

Understanding that Tampa Bay is one of the smallest markets in the Majors, Sternberg's hope since 2008 has been to rank among the middle of the pack in attendance figures. That hasn't happened.

Since these issues began to arise, Sternberg never has publicly wavered in wanting to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay.

"I intend to. I expect to," he said. "But as time goes along, the decision slowly and surely gets taken out of my hands."

"If we get something on the board, all the run-up and excitement of a new building coming in, more corporate support and things like that," Sternberg said. "It doesn't take a ton to move it, but we've got to start moving the needle in the other direction.

"I've said to [MLB], 'Look, let me see if we can get this worked out. I think the market can work here.'"

The Rays say it can't work in Tropicana Field, and they can't find a solution until they're allowed to explore other options. The Rays requested an amendment to their lease that would allow them to discuss other locations in Hillsborough County, but that request was denied by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who hasn't backed down in his insistence that the Rays play out their contract.

Sternberg said he hasn't had an in-depth conversation with Foster since last year and told the commission he was frustrated with Foster and his predecessor, Rick Baker, for not considering the long-term future of Tampa Bay and its baseball team. He also disagreed with the idea that St. Petersburg would "lose" the stadium debate by permitting the Rays to explore alternatives in Hillsborough County.

"When you say St. Petersburg, is it the city of St. Petersburg? The people who live in St. Petersburg?" Sternberg said. "I think that we need to think about the next 50 to 100 years as opposed to the next eight."

He pointed out that the Rays have made several moves with the future in mind, some of which required them to make difficult decisions: They committed $100 million to third baseman Evan Longoria as part of his 10-year contract extension, locked up left-hander Matt Moore for eight years and traded away starter James Shields for prospects.

"We do think about the future, and you've got to start planning for the future," Sternberg said. "It takes some time to plan a stadium. You don't just snap your fingers, and all of a sudden someone drops one down from the sky and there it is.

"We are thinking about it, and there's a time that's going to come in the not-so-distant future, we're going to have to have a very definite idea of where we're going to be playing baseball. And we're going to exhaust every option and do everything we can to be certain it's within Tampa Bay. I'm committed to doing that."