The good news is that Selig has a quick fix in mind for the Rays’ attendance woes: a new stadium. The franchise is halfway through its 30-year agreement to play in St. Pete’s Tropicana Field, but owner Stuart Sternberg has been begging for new digs for years. That hasn’t been easy to come by because St. Petersburg neither wants to hand over a large sum of money nor wants to lose the Rays to nearby Tampa or anywhere else. Selig’s patience is wearing thin.
“There’s no question there’s a stadium problem,” Selig said Wednesday, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s no debate about it. The question is what to do about it and when to do it and where, and those are conversations Mr. Sternberg and I will have.”
The bad news for both the Rays and St. Petersburg, though, is that blaming attendance woes on a “stadium problem” is exactly what Selig did in Miami just six years ago, when the Florida Marlins were looking to a new stadium to fix their sluggish attendance.
“I really believe that when you look at the demographics of South Florida, with a new stadium, that gives them a chance to be competitive, [the market works],” Selig said after stadium meetings in Miami in 2007, according to MLB.com. “After all, they are in a division where it’s not a secret, the Mets are building a new ballpark. Washington is moving into a new ballpark. Philadelphia is in a new ballpark, and Atlanta has a new ballpark. If I didn’t feel that South Florida was a market you can compete in, with the right stadium, I wouldn’t be here today.”
How did that work out? Not well. The lavish Marlins Park opened in 2012 after the Florida legislature and the city of Miami rushed through bond deals to make it happen. The city and state handed over $409 million in public funds, but because of balloon payments and the way the bonds are structured, the stadium will end up costing taxpayers roughly $2.4 billion over its life, according to estimates. And it hardly fixed the Marlins’ attendance problems.
The Marlins finished the 2011 season 28th in attendance. In 2012, fueled by a spending spree that brought in big-name players, they moved up to 18th. But that team finished in last place and subsequently shipped its best players to Toronto, and the Marlins now rank last in the league in attendance.
At that 2007 meeting, Selig talked with then-Miami mayor Carlos Alvarez about securing a new stadium deal for the city. Four years later, Miami had its stadium, but Miami citizens booted Alvarez from office in a recall election spurred by outrage over the sweetheart deal politicians rushed through for the baseball team.
St. Petersburg or Tampa may ultimately fare better than Miami. But the problems run far deeper than a mere stadium, and it’s worth remembering that when Selig marches into town wearing his frustrations on his sleeve and proclaiming that a stadium will fix everything that he’s made that argument before in a market with similar demographic and attendance problems. And in that instance, he couldn’t have been more wrong.