The move to build Rays a stadium in Tampa heats up, but the game is far from over 

Hours before the Tampa Bay Rays invaded the country's media capital last week and dismantled the New York Yankees two nights in a row, the group charged with assessing the Rays' stadium needs was presenting its final report to the Hillsborough County Commission.

Craig Sher and Alan Bomstein from A Baseball Coalition (ABC) spoke about design, corporate support, financing and -- a topic as compelling as the team's league-leading play -- where the Rays might wind up.

The ABC report lists five potential sites for a new stadium -- two in Pinellas, three in Hillsborough (two of them in the downtown Tampa/Westshore area). But even though Sher and Bomstein were giving their presentation for the first time to a government agency in Tampa, they were upstaged in the news cycle by the group BuildItDowntownTampa, who had announced the night before that they had formed an investment group to secure the "appropriate" land for two new possible sites just east of downtown, and planned on spending up to $25 million on land that they would then make available for a stadium.

Although the details were murky (the group has no official relationship with the Rays), it only fueled the fantasies of baseball-loving fans in Tampa that the Rays might ultimately flee Pinellas County for a new home across the Howard Frankland.

Under the radar

Of central concern is what Rays owner Stuart Sternberg wants. He hasn't said much at all regarding a new park since the Rays two years ago pulled the ballot measure in St. Pete that would have allowed them to build a park on the current site of the now lonely Al Lang field site. And that's to Sternberg's credit, says Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist.

"They haven't done what other teams have done, which is to make threats and give deadlines," says Zimbalist. "That's to be respected, since we do live in an environment where sports teams have a lot of economic power."

And with a lease that runs for 17 more years, and a culture of winning that is only in its third year, such an aggressive stance could severely alienate the positive reputation that Sternberg and his staff have established in Tampa Bay since taking ownership control of the team in 2006.

As it stands now, as Zimbalist says, so many teams in baseball have either built new homes or refurbished old ones in the past 20 years that the Rays (along with the Oakland A's) stand alone in their stadium needs.

One of the biggest reasons Tropicana Field is considered unsuitable to last another 17 years (other than its obvious drawbacks, such as the annoying catwalk and poor lighting) is its location. Some believe that if a stadium could be constructed in Tampa, closer to businesses, it would bring in more folks than it currently does. (This year the Rays rank 21st out of 30 teams in baseball attendance, slightly better than in the past few years.)

But would it really? Neil DeMause is the author of the book Field of Schemes and the host of a website of the same name. He thinks a move across the bay would be "at best a marginal improvement," and says that the Rays' average-to-poor attendance numbers echo those of the only other major league franchise in Florida, the Marlins in Miami.

That franchise shares some obvious similarities with the Rays. They're two of MLB's youngest teams, each having been established in the 1990s. The Marlins have actually won two World Series, but have never seriously attempted to spend the money to keep those championship teams together.

Now, after more than a decade of negotiations with local and state lawmakers, construction has begun in Miami for a retractable roof park at the site of the old Orange Bowl in Little Havana. But questions remain whether that will prove to be the magic bullet in terms of attendance when it opens in 2012. Call DeMause skeptical. "The Marlins have never drawn flies," he says. "I think we'll know a lot more in 2012, or really, 2014, after the initial excitement wears off," whether the Marlins' problems have been the stadium, or simply a lack of interest in the Miami market.

Enter Private Ryan

In addition to speaking in Tampa, the ABC Coalition delivered its report to several governing bodies in Pinellas -- but not to the most crucial audience, the Rays' landlord. The St. Petersburg City Council and the Foster administration refused to hear it. That communications gap, along with Rays management's current low-key approach, leaves the issue of a future stadium in a kind of limbo.

But that's where BuildItDowntownTampa comes in. Public spokesman Ryan Neubauer, a 31-year-old computer sofware engineer from Green Bay, Wisconsin, escaped the brutal Midwestern winters three years ago and relocated with his wife and two children to the Valrico area. After realizing that "suburban life didn't have what we were looking for," he moved his family to their present home in Ybor City.

Originally a Milwaukee Brewers fan, Neubauer said his group evolved out of discussions among Rays enthusiasts who were worried that the team's ownership might view attendance numbers as an indication fans didn't care about the Rays staying in Tampa Bay. He knew that wasn't the case.

So, along with seven (so far unidentified) cohorts, Neubauer formed the BuildItDowntownTampa site last July. Since then, the group has been looking at two locations east of downtown Tampa and plan to finish site analysis and offer funding recommendations for a new stadium in late summer or early fall.

But even if they were to announce such a plan, then what? With the exception of a handful of ballparks, most notably San Francisco's AT&T (originally Pac Bell) park in 2000, every other sports arena or stadium in recent decades has been built with a combination of private financing and public dollars; in the Tampa Bay area, Raymond James Stadium, the St. Pete Times Forum and Tropicana Field were built exclusively with taxpayer dollars.

As Hillsborough County commissioners said to ABC's Sher and Bomstein last week, they'll do whatever they can to make sure the Rays stay in the Tampa Bay area, but don't expect them to cough up any public funding anytime soon, because there's nothing in the cupboard. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who asked the ABC group to report to the board, said that Hillsborough had no intention of trying to poach the team from St. Petersburg, and certainly not with taxpayer subsidies. He said that he constantly repeats the refrain about government funding, because (perhaps not surprisingly) "There are still some out there that cannot understand that."

If they build it...?

BuildItDowntown Tampa's Ryan Neubauer gets that. "We've got to put forth a solution that is not only responsible to the team but to 'Joe Homeowner.' It's all got to come together in a responsible manner."

Neubauer, who majored in urban policy at Marquette University, says his group believes the stadium should be downtown, "where it becomes ingrained in the center of the city... and strengthens and builds neighborhoods."

But Noah Pransky, a television reporter with WTSP-10Connects, is skeptical. Pransky has begun a blog called Shadow of the Stadium featuring stories of his that have run on the CBS news affiliate, and he says his research has found only three stadiums in the past 50 years that have been built without public money.

And even though Tampa/Hillsborough might have some momentum, Pransky believes that St. Petersburg should not be counted out. The city will have more money available in 2016 when the debt service for Tropicana Field is paid up, and would not (unlike Tampa owners) have the financial burden that would come with breaking the lease at the stadium on Central Avenue and 16th Street.

The men who play at that address may appreciate the chatter about future stadium locations. But it's more urgent that Tampa fans drive over the Howard Frankland and fill up the domed park now. If the gestation period for a stadium is somewhere between 5-10 years, we're just at the end of the second inning.

Which means there's a whole lot of time before anyone knows where the Rays' next home will ultimately be.

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