Nobody ever thought to call Tampa/St. Petersburg–or the Tampa Bay area, for that matter–Titletown. But here we are, and not a moment too soon for a metropolitan area that is facing a total loss of sports-related economic impact this year in excess of $400 million.
The Lightning just came out of the Edmonton bubble with the Stanley Cup. The Buccaneers are in first place in the NFC South in their new era behind Tom Brady, the 43-year-old quarterback, who thus far seems to have brought some tarnished magic of his six Super Bowl rings with him from New England.
And the Rays are right there. With a win over the New York Yankees on Friday, they’ll go to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 2008, the year they lost a five-game rain-delayed World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The best-of-five AL Division Series at Petco Park is tied at two games apiece, and Game 5 between the two AL East rivals after the Yanks staved off elimination Thursday with a 5-1 win should be packed with drama. The Houston Astros await, beginning Sunday here at Petco Park in the best-of-seven ALCS.
“This run for the Tampa teams is pretty great, I have to say,” said Pete Fairbanks, the Rays reliever who shut down the Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 2. “If we can pull off the Boston trifecta, that would be something. I don’t know if they’ve ever done it, but they always seem to be in the hunt for it the last 10 years. To steal a little bit of that thunder would be great.”
Actually, Boston has never pulled off the trifecta. The closest the Beantown teams have come was the Patriots and Red Sox winning it all in 2018, although the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics have all won their respective titles at least once since 2008.
In New York, one has to go back to 1969-70 when the Jets, Mets and Knicks won their respective titles within 16 months, but obviously not in the same calendar year.
The Rays have only won that one AL pennant in 2008, in their only trip to the ALCS. The Yankees haven’t won or been to the World Series since 2009, although this could be their third ALCS in the last four years. The last New York-based title was captured by the football Giants in 2011.
New York, with all its glitz and the big money pro sports teams hand out to players, is hardly Titletown. Perhaps it’s Tampa’s time.
“Well, congratulations to the Lightning,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We certainly know what the Bucs are doing. It’s time for us to play our part. We’re in the position that everything is still out in front of us. We just have to make the most of an awesome opportunity.”
Under normal circumstances the Rays have a modest $100 million economic impact on the area playing on the wrong side of the bay in St. Pete’s antiquated Tropicana Dome, where they are locked into a lease through the 2027 season.
But these are hardly normal times. Halts in play and a return without fans because of the coronavirus have caused in Tampa Bay alone the cancelation of two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, a golf tournament, and a Grand Prix auto race. That’s on top of an early end to spring training, not to mention a 30-game home season at the Trop without any ballpark-generated revenue.
The NHL season came to a halt on March 12, costing the Lightning their last seven home games, plus the entire playoff schedule at Amalie Arena on the waterfront in downtown Tampa where the NCAA was also supposed to stage part of its men’s basketball tournament.
With all the hype of Brady’s addition, the Buccaneers have basically started the season at Raymond James Stadium with limited access to season ticket holders. As Florida is reopening, they are allowed 25% capacity, starting with their next home game against Green Bay Oct. 18 at a stadium in Tampa that seats 65,618.
Thus, the $400 million in lost economic impact this year.
The Rays have their own financial problems, killing a deal to share half the cost of a new $950 million retractable-roof ballpark with Hillsborough County on the Tampa side of the bay almost two years ago.
Prior to this season, Major League Baseball had given the Rays permission to study playing half their home schedule in Montreal, Canada, starting in 2028, but small stadiums in both venues have to be constructed to do that.
In the era of the coronavirus, those Montreal discussions seem to have been put on the back burner. Rays management declined a request to talk about it. The Expos moved to Washington in 2005, and Montreal stakeholders intent on eventually bringing MLB back to Quebec say they are closely watching events transpiring in Tampa.
To the Rays, the financial dichotomy is this: Their local revenue of $264 million for 2019, the last full season before the virus, was the fifth-lowest in MLB. But $82 million of that figure came from a 15-year local regional cable network deal. The Tampa/St. Pete TV market is the 11th-largest in the country, and MLB doesn’t want to lose it.
The team’s Dome attendance of 1,178,735 last year–14,734 a game–was second-lowest in MLB, ahead of the cross-state Miami Marlins.
Tampa Bay subsists on more than $50 million of local revenue sharing each year from the top-grossing teams in the sport to the lesser ones. But with little to no local revenue in 2020, there will be none of that.
Compare the Rays to the Yankees, who last year topped baseball with revenue of $683 million and a No. 2 player payroll of $223 million. The Rays had a last-in-MLB $64.2 million payroll.
Prorated for this 60-game season, the Yanks lead MLB at $109.4 million, while the Rays are again near the bottom at $28.3 million.
How is Tampa Bay on the brink of winning, spending basically a quarter of New York’s payroll?
“That’s not something that even crosses my mind. I don’t even think about that,” Cash said. “I think we’ve put a team together that’s built to win. If I had an explanation for why we’ve been beating the Yankees this year we would have done it a long time ago. For many years they’ve had their way with us.”
Not this year. Not now. The Rays have beaten their Yankee adversaries 10 of the 14 times the two teams have faced this year during the regular season and this round of playoffs.
“We’ve just played good baseball,” Cash said. “Our strengths have come out against them for whatever reason.”
The Lightning have won. The Bucs are coming. Right now, the Rays have one game in front of them to hold up their end of the bargain.