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Team not moving, officials insist

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Devil Rays may be for sale, but they aren't going anywhere, St. Petersburg officials said confidently on Thursday.

Any new owner would have to honor the 26 years remaining on the Devil Rays' lease for Tropicana Field because the lease obligation must be sold with the team, City Attorney John Wolfe said.

The lease says the club shall "not permit relocation of the franchise from the dome."

"It's a 30-year-obligation," one the city could take the team to court for breaking, Wolfe said.

Despite the team's low attendance and a losing record, City Council members said they are adamantly opposed to letting the Rays, even with new owners, out of that lease.

"They may view it as an asset, they may view it as a liability, but it's still there," council member Bill Foster said of the franchise's obligation to play all home games through 2026 at Tropicana Field.

Some experts, including Forbes magazine analysts, have said the stadium already is "antiquated" and that it contributes to the team's "weak fan support."

Forbes estimated this month that the franchise is worth $150-million, 25th among the 30 Major League Baseball teams. It said the Rays took in revenues of $81.3-million, more than 10 of the other teams but less than half of the Yankees ($192.4-million) and nearly $25-million below the league average.

A new owner also would assume about $38.5-million in future guaranteed contracts and about $23.5-million in deferrals from current contracts.

The Devil Rays owners paid more than $130-million for the franchise in 1995. Senior vice president John Higgins called the Forbes numbers inaccurate, but declined to elaborate.

The city agreed to build the stadium long before it had a commitment from a baseball franchise.

The domed stadium's construction cost $138-million. An $80-million renovation was required before the Devil Rays could move in for the 1998 inaugural season. The team paid for part of the renovation.

In exchange for paying the city 50 cents per ticket and a $200,000 cut of the naming rights fee -- a total of $891,000 last year -- the Rays control Tropicana Field completely, receiving all ticket revenue, luxury suite revenue and parking and concession proceeds.

That provides substantial revenue opportunities to the franchise, but the team cannot fill the seats to capitalize on them fully.

Meanwhile, the city pays about $6.5-million a year, and Pinellas County about $4.5-million, on the dome's bonds, which will not be paid off until 2016. In addition, the state of Florida is just five years into paying off a $28.73-million bond issue, its share of the stadium costs.

Many teams have seen attendance and revenues jump with new stadiums in recent years.

But St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker reiterated Thursday what he said during the recent mayoral campaign.

"I think as far as the city coming up with the money to pay for a new stadium, I don't know where we'd get the money from," the mayor said.

Baker said the city would cooperate with the team in other ways, if possible, but he said the team had not asked.

The Rays have had trouble persuading Tampa residents to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge to attend games, leading to some speculation that any new owners might want a new stadium in Tampa.

But paying for Raymond James Stadium and the Ice Palace may already have tapped out Hillsborough County voters' willingness to subsidize professional sports.

That, in turn, may boost St. Petersburg officials' confidence that the team will stay at Tropicana.

"We do want a team here; we want somebody in that stadium," council member Earnest Williams said. "We're going to insist that contract is fulfilled. If there's a new owner here, we want them in that stadium."

Word of a squabble among the team's current ownership group set the stage for the news that the team is on the market. A sale could replace one or more of the current partners or bring in a whole new set.

"Quite frankly with all the speculation, with the future of the managing general partner (Vince Naimoli) and the issue of whether he was going to continue, it just seemed that there was the possibility of an ownership change," said Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who heard the report on the radio. "Hopefully this might lead to some closure to all that uncertainty."

"New owners, better team, same place -- I'm for it," declared St. Petersburg City Council member John Bryan.

- Times staff writer Leon M. Tucker contributed to this report.

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