Hah, trick question. They don't even play in Tampa Bay!
That's part of the problem, folks.
Today on ESPN there is a well-done (but misleadingly headlined) article by Steve Berthiaume regarding the Rays' tenuous status in St. Petersburg. The crux of the article is that even with the Rays having been one of baseball's better teams the last three years, their attendance and television figures are declining. Berthiaume cites a bevy of statistics regarding the Rays and the area's other two major sport franchises, the Buccaneers and Lightning. I feel like there are a few thoughts regarding the Rays and MLB in general that I wanted to add for consideration.
One major issue is the location of the stadium and its quality. Tropicana Field is universally regarded as the worst stadium in baseball. What's worse is that it is apparently in a somewhat less-than-top-notch place on the outskirts of town. This isn't a place like Wrigley, Fenway or PacBell, with a downtown park where people will walk up and buy a ticket on a Friday evening after work with their friends. People need to make specific plans to go out there. For my Boston friends, imagine if a second "Boston" team was added, so you had no real reason to care about them. Now imagine if instead of having a Boston park, they actually played in Framingham. Would you go out after work and check them out? You would have to wait in Mass Pike traffic just to get to Route 9 just in time for light cycle bottlenecks. Wouldn't that be a huge pain in the backside?
So, in my humble opinion it is unfair to judge based on their league-worst attendance numbers. What's worse is that the economy in the Tampa area is pretty poor, and has been for the entire time the Rays have been any good. So I hate to make a rash pronouncement like "baseball can't survive in Tampa" since there is no baseball in Tampa. In early 2007, when people seemed to assume that the housing market would continue to increase exponentially towards infinity, the (the Devil) Rays announced an ambitious waterfront stadium project. When the economy was collapsing a year later, the financing dried up. So the Rays are stuck at the Trop. Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster is unwilling to let the Rays explore building a part in Tampa "The Rays aren’t going to Tampa or Hillsborough County" is a direct quote from Foster to the St. Petersburg times. Apparently losing the Rays to another part of the country is more palatable to Foster than losing them across the bay.
I don't want to judge how good a market the Tampa area can be based on their attendance numbers. As Berthiaume points out, the Lightning and Bucs had poor attendance numbers last year, which (especially for the Bucs) is not necessarily a terminal issue. Given a downtown ballpark and a better economy, there's a chance the franchise would do pretty well. Damning Tampa while their economy stinks reminds me of the mid-late '90's when the NHL left Winnepeg and Quebec City, and passed over Hamilton for an expansion club because the Canadian dollar stunk. It was a short-term solution for an industry that needs long-term vision for success. 10 years later things evened out and we were left with hot weather cities that didn't care having teams while rabid fanbases who would turn out to their arenas without one.
To me, the bigger issue is the drop in TV revenue. Maybe people in the Tampa area like baseball, but just not heading all the way out to the Trop to spend money to watch them in a crummy stadium. That seems totally rational to me. If that were the case though, wouldn't TV ratings be staying strong? Wouldn't people want to turn in and watch David Price (the most outwardly critical of the Rays players regarding the crummy situation) and Evan Longoria? Well, they're not. In fact, less people are watching than before. It's possible that people don't care.
Anyway, in year 14, I think it's fair to say that MLB pretty well screwed this up. They awarded the Tampa area a franchise without a downtown stadium, and allowed them to get locked into a crippling 30 year lease. That mistake is done though, the question now is how to move a well-run franchise forward.
So, should the Rays move? Yes. If it's not to Tampa Bay, then it should be somewhere else. The problem is what market would support them? Are Indianapolis or Charlotte or Portland any more ready to host a major league franchise than St. Petersburg was in 1998? MLB needs to do their due diligence and make sure a sensible stadium plan is ready in order to sustain a franchise.
MLB needs to let the Rays move where they feel they will be most financially strong long-term. This brings us to the second problem, that being how MLB handles its financials - the old small market vs. big market divide. I should note, I hate the term "market." Houston is a "bigger market" than Boston, but the Red Sox have a better revenue stream. Park of that is built in, part is due to things the organization does well, ranging from marketing to actually winning games.
Teams that do well financially are understandably hesitant to share their revenues. It's important to remember though, that while MLB teams compete against each other on the field, they are financial complements, especially long term. If, say, the Rockies do better at the gate, television ratings and merchandising goes up significantly national contracts are worth more, and the Red Sox earn more money. Meanwhile, if the Red Sox are in town, the Rockies reap those benefits. Unlike Microsoft, the Yankees have no sensible motivation for financially bludgeoning the competition. That said, unlike other industries each individual team exists not only to succeed financially, but to win baseball games.
How to solve this dilemma? Baseball needs to stop pretending it is some sort of free-market cartel. Solution 1: If baseball considers it in their best interests to operate teams in lesser markets, it needs to implement more significant revenue sharing. Not just a payroll tax, but actually sharing of local TV/radio revenue, stadium receipts and merchandising. If YES and NESN and other major team-owned sports media conglomerates continue to underreport the value of their contracts, MLB should be allowed to negotiate the contracts for each team. If you think there's any chance that the Yankees and Red Sox accept these terms, I should also tell you that the word "gullible" is written on the ceiling above you. The simple fact is that real revenue sharing just isn't possible the way it is in football. And that's ok. The Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies, for all of the complaints about them (some real, others imagined) make so much money because they are well run business. Criticize the Yankees for their inability to develop their own players if you wish, but that's a *baseball* complaint, not a business one. The Yankees turn a huge advantage into huge revenues.
Solution 2: If large market teams are unwilling to share their revenues, they should have no right to market exclusivity. The situation with San Francisco right now is ridiculous. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Oakland Athletics would like to move to San Jose, a larger market in better financial condition. However, San Jose is considered within the San Francisco Giants' market sphere, and they won't allow the move. Even though Oakland is closer to San Francisco than San Jose is. So we have a situation where large market teams not only don't have to share any meaningful part of their revenue, they can make it so other teams can't earn their own revenue. That's less ok. Large market teams are having it both ways, to the detriment of baseball in general.
Which brings us back the Rays. I'm not convinced that, even with revenue sharing, Tampa is a great market for baseball. You know what IS a great market for baseball though? Some hints. It has 2.6 million people over less than 100 square miles. It had a beloved MLB franchise at one time, and many locas still haven't forgiven them for leaving. It will be getting an NBA franchise in 2012. It has a multicultural base that MLB management craves. To say that the local population "proud" of where they live would be a tremendous understatement. Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine a fanbase not buying about a million hats the moment a franchise was announced. What's even better is that they'd have an obvious geographic rivalry with two teams right in their own division. What more could MLB ask for?
Well, they'd have to ask for the Yankees and Mets to withdraw their territorial rights. I'm talking of course, about Brooklyn - a place the MLB should never have left. A Brooklyn vs. Bronx series would be a marketing dream for baseball. Maybe it's my northeast bias talking, but I don't see how that wouldn't fantastic. (Ok, if I were a Royals fan, Yankees vs. Brooklyn on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball five times a year would get a little tiring, but a rant on how baseball shoots itself in the foot by failing to promote itself nationally deserves an article all its own.) Also, they'd probably need to change their name - Brooklyn Rays sounds like an awesome place to get a greasy thin crust pizza, but a less cool team baseball team name.
As I said above, I'm not ready to hold a funeral for Tampa Bay baseball. There are loyal fans of the Rays who deserve better treatment than they've gotten. I'd hate to make Dick Vitale said. If they do decide to move though, I can think of no better destination than Brooklyn. And the Yankees and Mets shouldn't be allowed to stop them.