tampabay.com

Sternberg's blind ambition tour hits town

By JOHN ROMANO
Published May 16, 2007


LAKE BUENA VISTA

I blame Orlando. For Rocco Baldelli's hamstring. For the ball hit over B.J. Upton's head. For James Shields' pitch count.

Mostly, I blame Orlando for the stars in Stuart Sternberg's eyes.

He is a dreamer, your Devil Rays owner. Where you see apathy, he sees potential. Where you see empty seats, he sees untapped resources.

The Rays have a hard time getting fans to cross a bridge, and this guy is envisioning them getting excited halfway across a state.

"I don't mind ambitious, " Sternberg said, standing on a field at Disney's Wide World Sports complex. "There's no such thing as too ambitious."

You may have looked at the seats that went unfilled Tuesday night for Orlando's first major-league baseball game, and dismissed the idea as a failure. A case of a team overextending its reach, and a city yawning in response.

There were, supposedly, 8, 443 people at this game. Heck, the Padres drew nearly three times as many fans in Monterrey, Mexico. The Expos - the Expos! - had double this many fans in Puerto Rico a few years ago.

So how could you possibly watch people walking out of a ballpark at the start of the 10th inning and not deem it a mistake of wild proportions?

By buying into Sternberg's vision.

He sees potential in Orlando because, he says, he does not have a choice. And, when you consider the Rays have been the worst-drawing team in the American League for most of the past decade, he may have a point.

"We can survive barely and we can do okay if we get the support of St. Pete and Tampa, " Sternberg said. "We can thrive - which is what everybody in St. Pete and Tampa wants - if I do my job expanding to become a regional franchise. From Port Charlotte up, and Orlando in.

"We have to be a regional franchise."

Look, the man is not a fool. He does not expect three games against Texas in the middle of May to turn the fortunes of a franchise forever stuck in neutral. Attendance will not be goosed at Tropicana Field because Orlando, Lakeland or Kissimmee suddenly became Rays towns.

But, really, that was not the purpose of this series. Sternberg's plan is grander. He sees advertising dollars. He sees demographics. He sees marketing.

And he sees lots and lots of television sets.

Before the Rays moved into Orlando's ballpark, they invaded Central Florida's airwaves. The Rays increased their TV package from around 25 to 67 games.

This means a market that was the 27th largest in the United States, according to the latest census, has Rays games on TV several nights a week all summer long.

"Would I rather have 30, 000 people in the stadium or 1-million watching on TV?" Sternberg said. "I think I would probably rather have 1-million people watching on TV. It's more important to know that 1-million people do care. And, from a money standpoint and the advertising, there's more revenue derived there.

"The Red Sox draw people on TV in Maine, all over Massachusetts, down in Connecticut, Hartford and New Haven. People three hours away, for goodness sakes. I know they're the Red Sox, and I know we're not. It's going to take us a long time. But you have to start. And here's where I'm starting. I'm putting my flag in the ground right here, and I get everything in between."

The Rays are nowhere near 1-million viewers on their television network, but ratings are up. In Orlando, the Rays say they've actually doubled. That may be easier when you're basically starting from zero, but it's still a nice boost.

And team president Matt Silverman said it is a direct correlation from the exposure of this three-game series in the market.

I'm still not sure I buy all of these arguments. SeaWorld doesn't attract customers by feeding squid to Shamu in a portable fishbowl on Dale Mabry. It draws people because it is a terrific amusement park.

And when the Rays become a terrific baseball team, they should be able to open the doors of Tropicana Field and watch the fans flow inside.

Does that mean the Rays erred by coming here? Did they cheat the handful of loyal fans they have in Tampa Bay? You could argue that. You could also argue that most of the bay area didn't even realize they were gone.

In the meantime, Sternberg is working the angles. He is trying to create excitement where it does not exist.

That doesn't mean he is wrong.

Just a little ambitious.

"We have to fish in larger waters, " he said. "It is imperative for us to have a television presence here."