Maybe We Should Vaporize Conventional Thinking

I was going to duck Stu Sternberg’s recent comments about the state of the organization but, several folks have asked for my opinion both in the comments and by email so, I am happy to at least think about what Stu said rather than brushing it aside.

Let me start by saying that I am not angry at Stu and I don’t think you should be either.

Stu made his comments in the clubhouse after an elimination game. He was upset just like the rest of us. When I get mad at the Rays after a frustrating loss, I say silly things too. Only, when I say them, it is just my wife that hears them. She makes fun of me (“right, because now you don’t think Zobrist can play”), I take it back, the world goes on. I think it is a natural reaction. The difference between Stu and me (in this single scenario, because there are a lot of other differences, for example, I am much better looking) is that my wife doesn’t work for a cable news network. In 2011, public figures do not have the luxury of speaking extemporaneously. So, I’ll give him some rope and chalk the tone of the comments up to his frustration with the outcome of the game.

Second — and get ready because this is a bitter pill — we shouldn’t be angry at him because, in a lot of ways, he’s right. The Rays situation is currently unworkable.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons that we are not selling out the Trop. We have discussed them all at length and none of them have to do with fan loyalty. I think this club has some of the most loyal fans in the game and I have been consistently impressed by the high level of conversation we’ve had here this summer. But, we have to be honest and at least admit that there is a problem for the Rays economically, regardless of the cause. No business can function on declining revenue and that is just what the Rays are being asked to do. Maybe Stu made his point inartfully. (I have to believe he’d like another shot at it without the emotion of a season ending loss). But his point is solid.

Think about it. If we cannot get people to the Trop because of the economy, and its location, and the infancy of the club, and there is no sign of an economic revival, or a new ballpark, or deep club loyalty in the near future, then the situation is unworkable. The problems, regardless of their cause, do not seem to have good solutions. Yes, we are unlucky that such a remarkable run of success hit right in the middle of the worst American economy of our lives. But it is not unreasonable for Stu, as a business owner, to be frustrated by that reality. More importantly, despite what you might read in the newspapers, Stu doesn’t have any moral or civic obligation to keep funding a financially unworkable endeavor.

I think the sting of all this comes from Stu’s tone. He’s a successful guy that saw what he thought to be low-hanging fruit. He saw a team in a solid market with a poor public image. Of course some investment in the ballpark, investment in the community, investment in the fans, and investment in the on-field product would automatically equal a sold-out house every night. He did his end, but didn’t get the result he expected. That’s frustrating and he lashed out.

In the end, though, I think Stu and his team missed the bigger picture. It’s not baseball that can’t work in Tampa Bay. It’s the current Major League Baseball business model that can’t work.

We love the game. But, in a sprawling community that is filled with active, outdoor-oriented people, you can’t build your revenue model on corporate sales (we have no Fortune 500 headquarters), television revenue, and ticket revenue. You can’t just take the business plan for the Yankees, Red Sox, or Cubs, cross out the names and write in your own. Those markets are fundamentally different.

I think this has been the only real failure of the Stu era. For all his creativity in marketing, public relations, and baseball operations, he has been decidedly conventional in his business operations.

For example, I read somewhere that the Rays season-ticket base is about 20%-30% lower than most other teams (I can’t find the article so these numbers are coming from memory…I’ll update them if you can find it). That shortage matches, almost exactly, the percentage of season tickets that other teams sell to big corporations in their markets. Stu had to know that Tampa is the biggest American city without a Fortune 500 headquarters when he bought the team. But no one seems to be asking why he didn’t account for that in his plan. Why is he running the team as though there is population density around the park and corporate money in the system?

If we’re going to save this thing, it’s time for someone in the Rays business office to have a Moneyball idea about business modeling, rather than the bullpen. Perhaps that idea won’t get Brad Pitt to play you in a movie, but it might allow our grandchildren to see Major League Baseball in their community.

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