Rays: Expand search for new ballpark

Rays: Expand search for new ballpark

ST. PETERSBURG -- Stuart Sternberg weighed in Monday afternoon, and his message was clear: He wants the Tampa Bay area to succeed in the business of Major League Baseball.

To that end, the Rays' principal owner asked that all potential new ballpark options within the Tampa Bay area, including those outside St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, be explored.

"The future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay depends on finding the optimal site for a new ballpark," Sternberg said.

Sternberg underscored that he believes baseball can succeed in the Tampa Bay area and that he is committed to doing all he can to keep the team in the region. He spoke for about seven minutes at a midday news conference at Tropicana Field and did not answer questions afterward.

"A Major League Baseball team's ability to compete, and quite frankly survive, rests on its ability to attract fans and businesses to its ballpark," Sternberg said.

He noted that during the year-and-a-half period from when he invested in the team until he took over as its principal owner, he asked a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area their opinions about what could be done to ensure that Major League Baseball would be viable in the region.

"The unanimous response was that it was all about winning," Sternberg said. "Winning would change everything at Tropicana Field. With a winning team on the field and an exciting and compelling team that comes to play each and every night, the fans would fill the stands. Clearly that has not been the case."

The Rays have been in first place for most of the current season and advanced to the World Series in 2008, yet attendance has not followed the growing interest in the team.

"Tampa Bay has fallen in love with baseball," Sternberg said. "We have an exciting and talented team, one that is challenging the Red Sox and Yankees for AL East leadership. But if you look beyond our performance on the field the last couple of years, you'll find a franchise that cannot continue as it currently exists."

Tropicana Field has been a bone of contention for the Rays' owners for several years. They do not believe the park can generate enough revenue to support a competitive team on a yearly basis.

In 2008, the Rays' proposal for a waterfront stadium did not come to fruition, prompting Sternberg and company to maintain a low profile in regard to plans about the team's future at Tropicana Field, or elsewhere. The ABC Coalition was formed in the community to advise what would be the best way to keep the Rays and make them successful.

"I instructed our staff to refrain from offering any comments on the report, because I believed the community deserved the opportunity to review the coalition's findings without our influence," Sternberg said.

The coalition determined that a new stadium was needed if the Rays wanted to be competitive and that two of the three best locations for a stadium were not in St. Petersburg.

"We have learned that it's not just about winning," Sternberg said. "It's not about ticket prices. And it certainly isn't about a lack of interest in this team. Our prices have been judged the most affordable in all of professional sports. Our television ratings have grown dramatically. And our standing in the community has never been higher.

"Our customers are our fans. We need to be in a location that is convenient for our fans to reach. And we need to be in a place that makes us attractive to the region's businesses and community. For this franchise to thrive, it needs to have the support of the businesses of Tampa Bay. The primary conclusion reached by the ABC Coalition was that the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay depends on finding the optimal site for a new ballpark. The site in the region that best ensures the long-term success of the Rays."

Over the years, a provincial mentality has existed on both sides of Tampa Bay, which has seen the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg act more like competitors than cohabitants of the area, and that attitude has been detrimental to both factions. Sternberg hoped out loud that such a mentality could be overcome in trying to find a new home for the Rays.

"What I conveyed to Mayor [Bill] Foster [of St. Petersburg] this morning is that if Major League Baseball is to survive and flourish in Tampa Bay for the long term, we must rise above municipal boundaries and work together with a common interest," Sternberg said.

He stressed that "baseball in the Tampa Bay area does not belong to Stu Sternberg, just as it doesn't belong to St. Petersburg or Tampa."

"It is a regional asset," Sternberg said. "It belongs to our fans throughout the region. For this asset to be preserved, a comprehensive process to explore a new ballpark must begin. That process needs to consider all possible locations throughout Tampa Bay -- meaning Tampa and Hillsborough [County] as well."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.