Friday, January 13, 2017

Hillsborough County Can't Stop Negotiating Against Itself Over Rays

Earlier this week, I reported how "Pinellas and Hillsborough leaders were doing everything possible to create a Rays bidding war." But there were a few interesting nuggets in that story worth even further discussion.

In addition to failing to communicate with his counterparts across the bay, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan continued to play into the Rays' hand by throwing out an artificially-high estimates for the cost of a stadium ($550-$700 million), getting the sticker shock out of the way now so when the number comes down to, say, $500 million, later...officials may actually suggest it's a better deal than they had anticipated.

But there's no way the Rays are actually eyeing a $550-$700 million stadium in a region that's been subsidy-adverse. Hagan said the team may choose to go without an upper deck and retractable roof (they will), bringing the cost down.

Yet those high numbers - coupled with Hagan's prediction that the Rays would bring $200-$250 million to the team (even though they've refused to discuss it publicly since 2008) - leaves a $250-$500 million funding gap (plus any cost of land acquisition)!  And Hagan's tone and comments suggested he had that part of the equation under control.

See, at a time the team isn't saying anything publicly, Hagan is negotiating against himself - and Pinellas.  That only serves to drive the public contribution on a stadium up, possibly over $250-$300 million. Then, when the team reduces its $700 million stadium plan down to $500 million, they only have to contribute $200 million. See how this slippery slope can work?

ALSO READ: Three Things the Rays' Stadium Saga Needs in 2017

As for that tug-of-war, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman is doing his part to avoid it by not talking money until the team chooses its choice location.  But Hagan and Hillsborough aren't playing by the same rules, and the lack of communication does nothing to protect taxpayers.

But I warned you this was coming.

In fact, the Times' editorial board, which more recently opined that stadium spending is often a good use of tax dollars, even issued caution against this St. Pete/Tampa tug-of-war, urging collaboration nearly a year ago:
The independent stadium efforts taking place in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties "should be complementary rather than competitive efforts, and the common goal should be keeping a regional asset that benefits the entire area."
There are some legit questions that need to be asked of Hillsborough's stadium negotiator-in-chief...but Hagan refuses to acknowledge my interview requests and makes a point to show up to meetings 30 seconds late and leave 30 seconds early.  That way, the "public servant" is able to ensure reporters cannot approach him easily at public events.

Well, my invitation remains open, Commissioner.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pinellas, Hillsborough Doing Everything They Can to Create Rays Bidding War

Elected leaders in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties vowed to do anything possible to keep the Rays in the region long-term. But my latest report for WTSP-TV reveals there's been zero coordination between the two sides as they each compete to build the Rays a new ballpark, even disagreeing on informal ground rules to prevent a bidding war.

As the Rays' stadium saga enters its 10th year, officials in both Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg have been meeting privately with the team to discuss possible stadium locations.

Hillsborough's lead negotiator, County Commissioner Ken Hagan, told WDAE-AM on Monday {audio starts at 7:30 mark here} he has worked with the Rays to narrow a list of sites down to "one or two" that would connect Tampa's downtown, Channelside, and Ybor neighborhoods together.

Hagan, who has repeatedly refused WTSP's interview requests, also said the county's bankers in New York have been meeting with the Rays' banking team to discuss stadium financing, possibly a bigger challenge for the region than finding an appropriate site.

RELATED: Hagan, Rays avoid transparency

But that conflicts with what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was hoping for to avoid a potential bidding war between Hillsborough and Pinellas.

"When we start getting into detailed conversations about financing," Kriseman said, "what we set ourselves up for is a bidding war, and then the taxpayers are the losers when that happens.”

St. Petersburg has been meeting with the Rays privately as well, and seems to hold a distinct advantage over Hillsborough County when it comes to available funding streams for a new stadium, since Hillsborough is already paying for two other stadiums and a convention center.

Kriseman has also been bullish on the possibility of a new stadium next to the existing stadium, so redevelopment at the Tropicana Field site could help fund the project.

When asked why he hasn't sat down at the table with the Rays and Tampa/Hillsborough officials, Kriseman said he expected each side to pitch its best site and let the Rays choose their favorite. Kriseman said he hoped both counties would then rally around the chosen site and hope the financing fell into place.

"We’re not getting into a bidding war because that doesn’t do any of us any good," Kriseman said.

St. Pete has even enlisted Dick Vitale in its "Baseball Forever" campaign.

But strictly looking at location, Hillsborough may have an advantage. The possibility of a stadium within walking distance to both Channelside and Ybor City may be difficult to pass up. However, the financing would be a major challenge there.

“For this to work, the team’s going to have to be at the table with at least $200 million, maybe $250 million," Hagan said on WDAE.

He added the overall cost of a stadium might be in the “550 to 700 million-dollar range," depending on things like whether it would have a retractable roof and an upper deck.

But that leaves a funding gap of at least $300-400 million. Hillsborough County's tourist tax would likely fund only about $75-80 million of construction.

Hagan said in 2010 that he objected to any public funding going toward a new stadium, but has changed his tune in recent years, telling WDAE "there will have to be some public money involved, hopefully primarily tourist tax dollars.”

RELATED: How Ken Hagan flipped on Rays stadium subsidies

Hagan suggested tax dollars could contribute toward a project's "infrastructure" and "perhaps mass transit."

The Rays have also not responded to WTSP's requests for comment regarding possible funding and preferred locations.

But the team has two more years to explore both sides of the bay. And given the lack of political opportunity for substantial subsidies right now, it appears they may continue to take their time.

Following his interview with me, Kriseman tweeted the following:

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Please Stop Acknowledging "Economic Impact Reports"

Don't ever believe anything you hear from economic impact reports - ESPECIALLY if the party that initiated it has a vested interest in the outcome.

But alas, our politicians fail to grasp this concept. So I brought my boss' 4-year-old son in to explain:

You can read the rest of the article here.

Or, any number of previous posts I've written on the topic.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Lawmakers Consider Ending Florida Stadium Subsidies Once and For All

Following the revamp of Florida's "sports development program" in 2014, I had a number of not-so-supportive things to say about it:

But this week, with a powerful state senator's announcement that he wanted to repeal the incentive program, I had the following reactions:

Stay tuned on this one.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Three Things the Rays' Stadium Saga Needs in 2017

Two years ago, I wrote "Three Things the Rays Stadium Saga Needs in 2015."  Unfortunately, nobody listened to me and we're still in a confusing stalemate, because two of the three things never happened:
  1. True Regional Approach Toward the Rays (Pinellas & Hillsborough are still bidding against each other)
  2. Transparency From the Rays Regarding Money (We still have no idea how much public cash the team wants)
  3. Less Heavy-Handedness from Editorial Boards and Sports Talk Hosts (Hey, this actually happened!)
Maybe it's just that Tampa Bay now has fewer editorial boards and fewer sports talk hosts.  But the slight reprieve from regular criticisms and claims the Rays are about leave without "progress in the upcoming year" has been nice.  Especially since so many years went by without progress and the Rays haven't yet left.

How long can we enjoy this silence?  Who knows, but the Tampa Bay Times' annual editorial pleading for stadium progress was pretty mild this time around.

So my "three things the Stadium Saga needs" hasn't really changed since 2015.  Regional collaboration, transparency, and fewer political criticisms remain the path forward for anyone hoping to keep the Rays here long-term in a way that makes financial sense for the region.

2015 Times: Year of hope in Stadium Saga

2015 Times: St. Pete needs to let Rays look this year
2015 Trib: Stadium progress is hope for new year
2015 Shadow of the Stadium: Three things the debate needs this year

2014 Times: Kriseman should solve stalemate "within months"
2014 Trib/Times: Time for progress

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dick Vitale: Build New Rays Park in St. Pete

Dick Vitale may loathe Trop attendance, but he's throwing his support behind the city of St. Pete's "Baseball Forever" campaign to build a new Rays ballpark on the Pinellas side of Tampa Bay:
To his credit, Vitale drives up from his home in Sarasota dozens of times a year to support the Rays, and he's also an unabashed critic of the Trop's critics.  I'm sure he doesn't want to have to navigate Tampa traffic 30-40 times a year.

But the bigger question remains, WHY ARE TAMPA AND ST. PETE COMPETING OVER THE RAYS?  Nobody stands to lose more than the taxpayer when you hand a pro sports team free leverage.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rayz Have 99 Problems...But Gettin' Rich Ain't One

What do the Tampa Bay Rays and Jay-Z have in common?

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Strong's Deal with USF Worth $9.8 Million (maybe*)

Charlie Strong's new head coaching contract at USF will pay him $9.8 million over the next five years, with the majority of the salary coming in the back half of the deal, according to the deal just released by the university.

The contract also sets a buyout figure of up to $2.5 million if Strong, the former head coach at the University of Texas, leaves USF for another job before the end of the five-year deal. The buyout would drop to $1.7 million if Strong were to leave in 2020 or 2021, prior to the Dec. 31, 2021 expiration of his contract.

The deal, signed this week, also guarantees the former University of Texas coach perks such as:
  • A country club membership;
  • A courtesy vehicle or $800/mo stipend;
  • Revenues from football camps Strong runs at USF;
  • A suite at all home football games plus six season tickets;
  • Four season tickets to all USF home basketball games.
By contrast, former coach Willie Taggart, who left USF for Oregon, received a similar salary and most of the same perks. But Taggart's contract also included a number of additional performance bonuses and a second vehicle (or stipend of $1,200/mo).

Strong's assistant coach salary pool will also grow from $1.6 million in 2017 to $3.4 million in 2019. Taggart's pool was $2.4 million in 2016.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Free Tickets for Tampa Bay Politicians

Many of the politicians who decide how many tax dollars will go to benefit Tampa Bay’s professional sports franchises are also accepting free tickets to those teams’ games. And many of those elected officials are failing to properly disclose the gifts.

As part of my duties for WTSP-TV, I've been tracking the attendee lists for Tampa Sports Authority’s luxury box at Raymond James Stadium, as well as state gift disclosures for Tampa Bay-area politicians over the last three years. And a number of potential conflicts of interest might be present, as the Bucs, Lightning and Rays have all courted local governments for tax money in the past 12 months.

The Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) refused interviews for this story but said its suite typically includes beer, wine, liquor, and a number of casual food items such as burgers and Cuban sandwiches.  Occasionally, crab cakes and sushi may be added. And access to politically-influential business leaders is always on the menu.

Florida law generally allows local politicians to accept gifts, such as free tickets, but it also requires politicians to publicly disclose any gift received over $100. Some officials tell me they outright reject any ticket or gift offers, for they could be perceived as a conflict of interest. But some gift-receiving politicians are better about filing their required state disclosures each quarter than others.

“I believe that anybody who is making a decision, if they are serving a public entity ... should disclose (receiving tickets),” said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who filed quarterly gift disclosures every quarter while in office, even if he didn’t accept any gifts during the period.

“Needless to say, I think we all know we have to keep a very close eye on politicians,” said current Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Stacy White. “Sometimes a gift can be a favor in return for some type of preferential treatment, perhaps a vote.”

But White was among the politicians we found failing to disclose some of the tickets he received from the TSA. While he had filled out gift disclosures for tickets in the past, he did not in the spring of 2015 or 2016, when he received a total of 10 Monster Jam tickets to the TSA suite (value: $450).

“That was simply an oversight by my part, but I genuinely appreciate and respect that you hold government officials accountable,” White replied. “Rest assured that we’re going to look at these not only once or twice, but three times looking forward.”

10Investigates also found that tickets to the TSA’s suite at Raymond James Stadium commonly end up in the hands of politicians’ friends and family members, rather than in the hands of business leaders or charities. An agency spokesperson said the TSA’s goal of the ticket allocations was “to further community relations, economic development and the like.”

Other findings:
  • Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman received three luxury box tickets to the 2016 Outback Bowl for her husband but did not disclose them. She said she thought it was to be disclosed at the end of the year. She purchases her own Bucs tickets to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
  • Commissioner Les Miller has regular access to Bucs and USF suites, but because the tickets are always left for his wife, former city councilwoman Gwen Miller, he isn’t legally obligated to disclose them.
  • Tampa City Council members and Hillsborough County commissioners on the TSA board do not consider their stadium tickets as gifts, even though they get two suite tickets to every game, match and concert held there. 10Investigates found no disclosure for the tens of thousands of dollars in tickets they receive each year, and there is no way to tell if they are bringing friends, family, associates or even campaign donors.
  • Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a frequent guest of local sports teams, has publicly disclosed receiving Tampa Bay Lightning playoff tickets four times from three different sources: the team, SunTrust Bank and the Tampa Bay Times (twice).  He also disclosed a pair of tickets to the Glazer Family’s Buccaneers suite in 2014, but told 10Investigates he has never received any suite tickets to Tropicana Field.
  • St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman – as well as city council members – regularly disclose receiving free concert and sporting event tickets, typically from the city’s allocation at public venues such as Tropicana Field, the Mahaffey Theater and the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. Several Pinellas commissioners and Tampa City Council members also received Rays tickets from local organizations and businesses.
  • Many politicians have also disclosed receiving free travel expenses for trips to Cuba (including Kriseman and Pinellas commissioner Janet Long) as well as international economic development missions (Kriseman and Hillsborough commissioner Al Higginbotham).
  • State Senator Tom Lee, who is not allowed to accept any gift worth more than $25 as a state legislator, received a pair of suite tickets to the Feb. 2016 Monster Jam at Raymond James Stadium from the TSA’s lobbyist, Ron Pierce. Lee later paid Pierce for the Monster Jam tickets, but Pierce was allowed to keep the money. Lee sent 10Investigates a canceled check to Pierce for tickets to a number of undisclosed events.
  • The office of USF President Judy Genshaft is given full discretion on whom to invite to her suite at Raymond James Stadium for USF home games, but the office has struggled to provide the records on who has attended in recent years.  An invite list shows most local mayors and Congressional members have been invited, but several of the individuals said they never attended. The university receives – and lobbies for – tax dollars from local, state, and federal governments.
  • 10Investigates requested the public records on politicians receiving free tickets at University of Florida and Florida State University football games, but neither university was able to provide records in time for publishing.
  • About half of local council members and commissioners in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties did not fill out a single gift disclosure in the last three years.
The Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning also all invite politicians to games, often in the club or suite level. But since the teams are private businesses, their records are not available through public record requests. The Lightning use the same lobbyist as the Tampa Sports Authority.

The city of Tampa also has an additional provision in the city code requiring all elected officials - as well as any employees who are appointed, work in procurement, permitting or zoning - to fill out additional disclosures annually for any gift, including tickets, over $100 in value. Tampa's public records liason told 10Investigates the city doesn't have a single disclosure on file in recent years.

Commissioner Murman added that Hillsborough’s county attorney’s office will add gift disclosures to its annual ethics training to improve compliance and transparency in the future.

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Role Reversal: Selig and Manfred Lobbying for Rays Stadium

Since there's no Hall of Fame to the business of baseball, Bud Selig was selected for induction into the regular ole' Baseball Hall of Fame. Because, you know, a lasting legacy of competitive imbalance is something we should all celebrate.

But then again, when EVERYBODY in MLB is getting rich....who's to complain?

Of course, Selig was happy to share his opinions on the Rays stadium saga.  However, it was a far cry from the fearmongering theme he used to pressure Tampa Bay for so many years (see links below). This week, he told reporters he was "optimistic" about the situation.

Hell, it's a new offseason! Stu Sternberg has said he's "optimistic" too!

Then, there's current commissioner, Rob Manfred, to rain on the parade.

The man who said just two months ago that he was "positive about the prospects for a (Rays) stadium"...said this week, according to Marc Topkin:
"I think getting, not only a new facility, but a facility that is more appropriately located within the Tampa-St. Pete market would be good.

"Ultimately, there has to be an end game. If in fact, there's not a site or there's not a financial arrangement that's viable and we become convinced of that, our rules allow for the possibility of relocation.

"At that point of desperation, it's possible a team would be allowed to relocate."
Calling on the public to cough up tax dollars?  Check.

A pleasant reminder the team can relocate?  Check.

A non-threat threat and fearmongering?  Check.

Seems like Manfred really did learn a thing or two from Selig.

A brief history of Selig and the Stadium Saga:

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Rowdies to Advance MLS Push Today

Bill Edwards and the Tampa Bay Rowdies have called a 6 p.m. press conference today to call for community support in their push to join the MLS.

It's an challenging, but inevitable attempt by Edwards, and it was first forecasted by this blog in early 2014.

The challenge is twofold:  Edwards needs to convince the MLS and Orlando City Soccer Club to add another I-4 team; and he needs to convince St. Pete, Pinellas County, and/or the state of Florida to fund major stadium upgrades.

Because you don't make money on new stadiums by funding them yourself.

UPDATE: The Rowdies launched a formal campaign for MLS membership and a new stadium expansion. Edwards says he will self-finance the $80M stadium campaign.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rays Want You to Know They (Supposedly) Prefer Tampa

As predicted in 2009, the Rays are seemingly encouraging a tug-of-war between Pinellas, which has more money, and Hillsborough, which has more fans.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Chris Archer Echoes Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Theory

As if he had emerged from the scenes of the movie Major League, Rays ace Chris Archer suggested Thursday the team's low payroll was impacting the psyche of players:
I get it. We might not be capable of spending with the Yankees and Red Sox. But if we keep harping on it then it permeates the minds of the players. And we don't want the players to think that we're at any competitive disadvantage.
Archer's comments echo the longstanding theory on this blog that ownership's years of lamenting have created a self-fulfilling prophecy, of diminished fan interest in attending games.

If you bash it, they won't come.

Of course, the team's quick willingness to remind fans they may be considering a move to Montreal (as predicted here in 2009) does nothing to stop the attendance death spiral.

But the most interesting thing I read yesterday came from  It's either the most insightful - or the most ignorant - paragraph on the Rays' future. Indiana-based Matt Snyder suggests he knows when the Rays' renegotiated TV deal - previously set to expire this offseason - will end, even though the team has refused to provide any details:
Getting a better television deal -- their current deal runs through 2018 -- and moving to the Tampa side in an outdoor (retractable roof?) stadium would probably help matters and enable the Rays to push up into the low-20s in payroll and that's probably all they'd need to be more consistently winning.
Snyder's suggestion that the Rays' payroll would surpass 6-8 teams - if they only had a new stadium - also seems far-fetched.  But weirder things have happened.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Rays Stir Pot with Non-Denial Denial of Montreal Rumors

Who needs to hold public discussions on when you've got an unsourced rumor from a Montreal sports reporter doing your bidding for you?
If true, it seems to be a violation of the spirit of the team's agreement with St. Pete...and possibly a violation of the letter of the contract too.

But in true MLB fashion, never let a good rumor go to waste!
By refusing to deny the rumors, the Rays are not-so-subtely reminding Hillsborough and Pinellas elected leaders that they miiiight leave if public subsidies for a stadium aren't available here.

After all, you don't get a stadium built for you without first creating leverage.

UPDATE: MLB is also doing its part to stir the pot...and encourage Tampa Bay baseball fans to question their team's commitment to the area:

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Tampa vs. St. Pete Tug-of-War Heats Up

This is why Bill Foster didn't want to just let the Rays look at ballpark sites in Tampa without restrictions. I wrote in 2011:
What has been offered is a region-wide search for a better location and Foster already knows what that would yield: a Tampa vs. St. Pete tug-of-war.
And sure enough, in 2016, after the Rays have conducted months of behind-closed-doors meetings with elected officials, the tug-of-war is exactly what we have as Tampa and St. Pete both prepare "competing" offers for a new stadium.

That only serves to benefit the Rays, who are naturally looking for as generous of a public subsidy package as they can get.

And how do you get that?

By creating leverage.

This blog has spent seven years explaining how competition between cities benefits Rays, not taxpayers...and how inevitable a tug-of-war between counties was if the Rays were allowed to control the conversation.

Then-mayor Foster even asked in 2011 for more regional collaboration from then-candidate Bob Buckhorn...but there's been almost none between Hillsborough and Pinellas leaders regarding the Rays.

According to the Times' Steve Contorno, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan "said the Rays have not yet said how much they are willing to contribute toward a stadium," so the county is trying to find additional revenues (mostly from taxes) that could be contributed toward a stadium.


Maybe we shouldn't be surprised; this is the same Ken Hagan who has spent the last six years "evolving" from his "no public dollars" for a stadium pledge. Contorno writes that Hillsborough could consider a TIF district (which involves property taxes), raising rental car taxes (which were already raised recently), a concessions or ticket tax (which comes out of the team's pocket), selling development rights around the stadium (which could cost the county if it's a land giveaway), and of course, begging the legislature for state tax dollars.

Meanwhile in Pinellas... the Times' Charlie Frago and Mark Puente write about the "battle" St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is waging with county leaders over how much of a new stadium bill each municipality would potentially foot....but Kriseman responded to the article by calling financial discussions "premature": It's not like St. Pete has any other pressing needs for its tax dollars....

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