I emailed Steve Berthiaume last Thursday and asked if he would mind doing a quick Q-and-A after my response to his piece on relocation generated such vigorous debate in the comments section.
Steve agreed and the Questions and Answers are below. I kept it to 4 questions for two reasons. First, these questions are based on the areas that Steve and I disagree (if you want to see where we do agree, however begrudgingly, check out my post from Thursday morning). Second, I wrote this Sunday night and asked Steve to respond by Monday morning.
Many thanks to Steve for not only standing behind his argument, but also for answering these questions without a lot of lead time. I am going to resist every lawyer urge to get the last word and leave the extended debate to the comments.
Mark: In my response, I conceded that the Rays current operating plan is not successfully luring the support necessary for long-term health. But, if the only solution is to move to another market, what market do you believe is is a better option than Tampa and why?
Steve: By most accounts there is no better option, nor did I suggest there was. In fact, what I wrote was that the lack of major league-ready alternative was one of the factors contributing to the stall in which this situation is currently stuck. What I wrote, keeping in mind that as is the case with all our material I wrote the text but chose neither the headline captions nor the photos, was that the Rays need to be moved. On that point, nearly everyone but a St. Pete politician or two seems unanimous. Tampa, given it’s economic uncertainties as well as other factors, may not be the guaranteed solution either. I certainly don’t claim to have any answers. My article was intended to serve only as a summation of the current situation for baseball fans all over the country, who may never have looked at its specifics. Saying that the team needs to be moved from The Trop in St. Petersburg seems, at this point, beyond debate.
Mark: The financial documents leaked to Deadspin last season showed that the Rays are profitable despite their attendance issues. No one has refuted the leaked numbers so, if the Rays are making money, is this really a problem?
Steve: The organization has had to cut payroll by $ 30 million, putting itself at a competitive disadvantage and the owner has stated publicly, several times this year, that the franchise cannot sustain itself in its current situation. A superior product being offered as, according to ESPN The Magazine, the most affordable ticket in sports is the lowest attended product in its league. Don’t those sound like problems to any reasonable person?
Mark: My primary argument against relocation has always been that an expansion franchise needs a period of time to grow a fan base in a new city. They cannot just expect fans loyal to other organizations to join them simply because they showed up. Do you agree with this premise? If so, how much time is reasonable before determining whether an expansion market was just a failure?
Steve: I agree. Any expansion franchise needs time to develop its fan base. However, I’d say that time period is limited to how long the organization can sustain itself financially while those roots take hold in the soil. If money is an issue, that franchise then operates on a shorter clock than another franchise which may be better funded. Recent expansion teams, such as the Rockies, found their way to new stadiums relatively quickly. In the Diamondbacks’ case, immediately. The Marlins are finally moving into their new stadium next season. Nationals Park opened shortly after the Expos moved from Montreal. That changes the economic equation. In the case of expansion; money and a new facility buys you time. The Rays franchise, by most accounts, has little financial flexibility and a poor facility and therefore has less time in which to get its fan base invested in its success. The financial and stadium situations determine how much time is on the clock. The Rays, given their circumstances, may have a shorter clock.
Mark: How do you differentiate between the Rays current attendance issues and the attendance problems the Yankees and Red Sox had in the recent past. Or, the attendance problems in Baltimore or Pittsburgh? How long does a market need to struggle before baseball pulls the plug?
Steve: Attendance in Baltimore and Pittsburgh declined only after decades of poor decisions and post-season droughts. There is no comparison there with Tampa Bay. Both franchises built sparkling new ballparks. Oriole Park and PNC Park are among the best in all of baseball. Both cities have baseball traditions that go back multiple generations and waned only after nearly 20 years of mismanagement in both cases. In those cities, as in Boston and New York, the facilities, the generations of followers and the teams’ role as part of the cities’ identities are beyond question. The Rays have none of those in their history. In fact, less than three years removed from the World Series the Rays are generating the second-lowest attendance average in baseball. There is an enormous difference between a long tradition of support that dulls during lean years and a new franchise which even with a superior product at affordable prices struggles to generate consistent support from its own fans.