By Jim Bleyer
After decades of being shaken down by sports franchises, their billionaire owners, and professional sports leagues, sensible cities are refusing to pay subsidies to keep or lure a professional sports team.
There is one exception: Las Vegas. It appears to be the most likely destination for a Tampa Bay Rays franchise desperate to feed at some public trough.
Though much ballyhooed in the local media, a Rays move to Tampa, contingent on hundreds of millions in public subsidies, is highly unpopular on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum. A public referendum would go down in flames.
Cobbling together an enormous subsidy from several revenue sources for owner Stu Sternberg would jeopardize Tampa’s financial rating and neglect important city services that need upgrading.
But Vegas gets tons of dough from gambling and other related sources. It has successfully lured a new hockey franchise and an established NFL team to relocate.
Sin City’s NHL franchise, the Golden Knights, is enjoying a banner inaugural season in both attendance and on the ice. It became the first team in NHL history to start its first year winning eight of their first nine games.
The Golden Knights lead their division and rank third in the 16-team conference as the regular season winds down. A combination of liberal expansion draft rules and shrewd front office transactions enabled the fledgling Knights to wow its fans and hockey aficianados in general.
Average attendance at the T-Mobile Arena is 17,892—103 percent of capacity. According to ESPN, Vegas is third in the NHL in overall arena capacity percentage. The 14,000 season ticket holders can expect to kick up more jack next year.
The team’s mascot is a gila monster named Chance. A relocated Rays team could accurately be represented by a desert rat named Sure Thing.
Hedge fund managers like Sternberg and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jeff Vinik share one characteristic: they make fortunes with other people’s money, often reeling in bigger bucks than their investors, or more appropriately, “customers.”
Other cities mentioned as landing spots for the Rays make little sense. Montreal, a city that failed to support the Expos and lost the team, is now governed by a mayor that ran on a platform of setting a high bar for any stadium subsidy. Charlotte and Portland have younger populations that don’t put pro sports on their radar. Cities in Mexico and Cuba would support professional baseball but they’re not viable in the present poinsonous political climate.
So the last city standing is Vegas, having drawn no line in the sand. It is willing and able to spend whatever it would take to land a professional baseball franchise.
The biggest hurdle for Sternberg: waiting too long. Like St. Petersburg, the city of Oakland has been threatened by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred that it will lose the A’s without new facilities.
An Oakland move to Vegas makes more sense than Tampa Bay geographically but baseball has seamlessly realigned its divisions in the past. Sternberg should act quickly.
The perennially shiftless NFL’s Oakland Raiders will begin play in Vegas in 2019 or 2020, depending on stadium availability. The Raiders have fans thoughout California from San Francisco to San Diego and they travel well. This move has “success” written all over it.
Like the Rays, the Raiders have an owner, Mark Davis, that will travel to where he can get the best deal. Unlike the Rays, the Raiders have a storied history of success on the field and at the box office.