Raising the Rays right

It is Matt Silverman's job as team president to find the money, talent and fans to help the franchise grow - and win.

By Robert Trigaux, Times Business Editor
Published March 26, 2007

From Matt Silverman's spacious office overlooking Tropicana Field, cranes crowd centerfield in the rush to install scoreboards and corporate signage on the Trop's gray concrete walls.

Just 11 days to Opening Day and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' president is talking turf. Rays turf.

Not that lush new turf on the field, but the regional turf of west-central Florida Silverman is trying capture for the in-flux brand that is the Rays' Major League Baseball franchise.

On one hand, Silverman, 30, is pestered by hometown loyalists - even St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker chimes in - bugging him to change the name to the St. Petersburg Rays.

For the record, there is a name change coming. So long, "Devil." In all probability, look for the Tampa Bay Rays and a new logo to be formally unveiled this fall.

Rather than narrow the brand, Silverman wants his Rays franchise to encompass an imposing geographic area of loyal fans stretching from Ocala in the north to Orlando in the east and south to Charlotte County. Big talk. But Silverman is patient. Sometimes, it can take a generation.

Just getting Tampa fans to drive over that blasted magical barrier - the Howard Frankland Bridge - to home games would be a nice goal.

Keep in mind what Silverman's real job is. He's the eyes and ears of franchise principal owner, New Yorker Stu Sternberg. He's supposed to boost the Rays' brand and franchise value and sell the Rays as a genuine contributor to the greater Tampa Bay community.

As for building the last-place Rays into more of a winner on the field, that job belongs to others. Sure, when the Rays improve, Silverman's job will get a lot easier.

"We can put in a new scoreboard in a season," Silverman says. "On the baseball side, we can make a great decision to draft third baseman Evan Longoria (third pick in the June 2006 draft), but we may not see the impact of that until 2008 or 2009 or later."

A year ago, Forbes valued the Rays at $209-million, less than any of the other 29 MLB franchises. At $209-million, the Rays franchise was $16-million lower than its value in 1999 after the first season.

But the $209-million value last year was a whopping $67-million higher than the dreadful low reached in 2002. And between 2005 and 2006, the Rays franchise value jumped by $33-million, the greatest one-year bump yet.

Some perspective. The Minnesota Twins, 29th in MLB franchise value, added $38-million between '05 and '06. The kingpin Yankees added $76-million.

But consider this. The Florida Marlins (ranked 28th in value in '06) rose by $20-million, or $13-million less that year than the Rays. That makes the Marlins franchise value $17-million higher than Tampa Bay's.

For the Rays, corporate sponsorships (including one with this newspaper) are up and expected to climb again this year.

In what might be Silverman's boldest and most compassionate task, he's exploring the possible public resurrection of Vince Naimoli - the guy who helped bring the Rays franchise here, then so successfully alienated this region's entire fan base.

A public relations expert is working with Naimoli, who has an office at the Trop. Can Vince be redeemed? Are we heading to the World Series? In baseball, anything's possible.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727)893-8405.