Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Tampa and St. Pete learn the wonders again of the stadium game

When I was a kid, I learned soon enough that making threats and holding my breath wasn’t enough to get my parents to give me what I wanted.

Had I been a little wiser, I would have become a sports team owner, and then pulled the same stunts and watched as everyone lined up to kiss my ass.

That’s how it works in the stadium game, and that’s the logic behind the Tampa Bay Rays’ ownership’s latest ploy to get a new stadium, and have it paid for by the government.

The trouble is that the local governments don’t have the money, and you can’t possibly be so naïve as to expect the team to foot the bill, so they’re invoking that old option: threatening to leave. Of course, what they’re really doing is saying that they don’t intend to stay through the end of their lease in 2027. Now, if I tried that in my apartment, announcing that I was leaving, I’d have all kinds of lawyers on my case, but this is sports – and this is the stadium game, where today’s signed, sealed and delivered contract is tomorrow’s toilet paper.

The trouble, some of the spelling-challenged commenters at the St. Pete Times’ website declared, is that the “fans” are not supporting the team by going to games at Tropicana Field, heretofore known as “the Trop.” But I guess I have to repeat myself: not everyone in the Tampa Bay area is a fan of the Rays. People take their team loyalties with them when they move. Look at what happens when the Yankees play at the Trop, or the Mets play at whatever the Marlins’ field is called this week. You see lots of butts in the seats, and lots of people cheering for the visitors.

When I was a kid growing up in the late 1960s, the male relatives and lots of other folks would get very excited when the Dodgers or Giants came to play the Mets at Shea. It was outside my experience and before my time, but that was because the team loyalties were so strong. Distance made following your team hard then, but today, you can be a fan of just about any sports team on the planet, and get the latest information online.

Thus, following your home team is easy and you can stay a fan. It means the local team doesn’t get the benefit of your loyalty, but that’s the way it is in sports.

The Rays’ owners bleat that they need a new stadium to have a competitive team, but the Rays are competitive now. It’s what you have on the field that brings in the people, not the stadium. When the Mets sucked in the 1970s, it was like being tortured to go to Shea and everyone talked about what a hole the place was. When the Mets finally got good again, the gripes about Shea died down. It was the same hole, but there was a winning team playing ball there.

Teams go through their ups and downs, and believing a new stadium will make a team a winner is like believing the uniform colors will affect their play.

I’ve been to the Trop, and it’s not a hole, or at least not a hole like Shea was all those years ago. It was weird to see baseball played inside, and the noise level was headache-inducing, but it wasn’t all that bad after a few innings.

If the owners of the Rays would focus on making their team an asset to the local kids and forget about the adults – because they all brought loyalties to other teams from wherever they’re from – they’ll have a fan base in the future. Throw it all away on a political war for a new stadium, and they’ll be the Las Vegas Rays or the North Carolina Rays, and no one will lament their departure.

Long after Shea Stadium was declared a hole, the Mets played there. Seeing it fall was sad, but the new stadium was definitely needed. The Mets will win and the Mets will lose there, but they’ll still be the Mets to me. That kind of loyalty will never die, no matter where I am.

What a pity the Rays’ ownership doesn’t understand that.

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June 24, 2010 - Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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