The future of baseball in Tampa Bay hangs in the balance as the Rays inch closer to being able to look outside of St. Pete for a new place to play ball. What happens to the Major League Baseball team has more impact than many people realize.
Even though turnout is lackluster compared to other teams, on game day, hoards of fans pile into Tropicana Field. These fans pay to park in various privately-owned lots. They dine in locally owned restaurants downtown and pre and post-game it at local watering holes. One of those, and perhaps the most popular Rays fan hangout, is Ferg’s.
“Every night when I go to bed I think about it,” said owner Mark Ferguson referring to the prospect of the Rays ditching the ballpark right across the street. Ferguson was intervered on WFLA radio about the latest developments in the Rays’ quest for a new stadium. His business would lose loads of business if the Rays relocated, but that’s not his biggest concern.
“The economic impact to Pinellas every year is $250 million the Rays bring in besides 3,000 jobs they provide,” Ferguson said.
The debate isn’t new. The Rays have been negotiating their contract with the city for years in hopes of being able to possibly weasel out of it in favor of a new stadium somewhere else. Former St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster failed to reach a negotiation with the Rays saying he was ensuring that any compromise with the team protected taxpayers.
Current Mayor Rick Kriseman did strike a deal though. In what’s called a memorandum of understanding, the Rays would have to pay the city $4 million a year until 2018 if they begin playing ball outside the city. After 2018 they would pay $3 million a year until 2022 and then $2 million until 2026. They wouldn’t have to pay anything for 2027, the final year of the contract with St. Pete. There would be no “search fee” for the Rays to start looking for new stadium sites.
Estimates show that’s about $24 million for the city if the Rays find and build a new stadium to play in by 2018. As some have noted, it’s more likely that figure would be about $17 million if the Rays don’t move until 2020.
“This would be a bad deal for the city of St. Pete for $24 million to lose ou t on that every year,” Ferguson said.
He plans to send that message to Mayor Kriseman. His words aren’t likely to have an impact on Kriseman’s resolve to keep the deal with the Rays. Kriseman told city council members last week that any changes at all to the agreement would drive Rays leadership away because they aren’t willing to budge. The team’s owner, Stu Sternberg, has said if city council doesn’t approve the compromise he could just move the team anyway or sell. Ferguson gave the proverbial, ‘pssshhhh’ to that idea.
“They will never move this team. There’s just too much involved in that – being sued – you have to open up your books. Baseball will not open up their books for anybody because they make so much money,” Ferguson said.
That’s why he called the deal brokered by Kriseman “chump change” and says he plans to take his message to city council this Thursday when they vote on whether or not to approve the deal.
“I’ll be the first one in line,” Ferguson said.