Big-time sports has collided with government in one of Florida’s largest metropolitan areas, and rhetoric between the Tampa Bay Rays and the City of St. Petersburg suggests things could get ugly.

When Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announced this week that his team cannot survive financially in its current stadium, Tropicana Field, located in downtown St. Petersburg, it set off controversy that is sure to consume time and money for years to come.

Sternberg held a press conference Monday saying he has done his part by fielding a winning baseball team that has been to the World Series and is competing this year for first place, but attendance still lags. Sternberg said his organization has determined that Tropicana Field is the problem and he wants out. The team claims the Trop is too far from Tampa’s population base and is not drawing enough fans from Florida’s fourth-largest county, Hillsborough.

“Baseball will not work long-term in downtown St. Petersburg,” Sternberg concluded.

But it wasn’t the statement that Tropicana Field is not financially viable that set off controversy, but Sternberg’s proclamation that the Rays would not be playing in the stadium through 2027, as the team’s lease with the city states.

It further irked city officials that Sternberg said discussions needed to be open for new stadium sites throughout the Tampa Bay region, including outside city limits. St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster quickly pointed out that not only does the Rays’ contract with the city state that the team must play at the Trop through 2027, but also that the team cannot enter into discussions with any other entity – government or private sector – about a new stadium.

Foster, elected as mayor in November, proclaimed that his taxpayers had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Rays and they “would not be brushed aside.”

On Thursday, St. Pete City Attorney John Wolfe told city council members that the city is exploring ways to counter any moves the Rays may make to circumvent the lease, and is monitoring whether the team enters into talks with other entities.

“We would enforce, and will enforce the exclusive dealings provision,” Wolfe said, in effect warning the Rays that the city would sue the team if necessary.

It is not the first time discussion of moving the team out of the city has angered St. Petersburg officials. In 2008, then-Mayor Rick Baker commissioned a panel of business leaders in the Tampa Bay area to conduct a study to investigate the viability of the Rays in the region.

The ABC Coalition found that the Rays generated an estimated $298 million for the region each year, but also that the team needed a new stadium (notably, one with a retractable roof) to remain financially viable. The coalition proposed possible sites in north St. Pete, known as the Gateway area, as well at downtown Tampa and the Westshore area of Hillsborough County.

Even the mention of a location outside the city made city council members refuse to hear the coalition’s findings in public. But Sternberg stressed in his press conference Monday that the entire Tampa Bay region must be considered to keep the team in the area.

It was a claim that St. Petersburg officials viewed as an attempt to back the city into a public relations corner.

“It’s really too bad the Rays have set the stage for pitting St. Petersburg against Tampa,” said City Attorney Wolfe.

Mayor Foster took it a step further: “We are not going to let this become us against the world.”

But the mayor has also left the door open to talks for a new stadium with the Rays, as long as potential sites would be in the city. “No sites outside of our geographic boundaries will be considered,” Foster wrote in a statement.

The posturing between the Rays and St. Pete has the very real possibility of ending up in court should the team begin talks with other entities, according to Stetson University contract law professor James Fox.

If the battle does go to court, St. Pete has a strong contract that will make it difficult for the Rays to leave Tropicana without a difficult legal battle. Fox says the 1995 contract appears to have been designed with the foresight that the day might come when the Rays would want to move on from Tropicana Field.

“The way the contract is written, St. Petersburg is in a very strong position in this situation,” says Fox, who has studied the agreement.

The real fight would come if the Rays decide to break the lease and roll the dice in court. City officials have already thrown out the word “injunction,” meaning the city would seek to have a court prohibit the Rays from leaving Tropicana Field should negotiations with the city completely break down before 2027.

Fox says there is precedent for courts to order such injunctions, but they are rare and never last for long periods of time. Recently, Minnesota received such an injunction during a dispute between the city and the Twins over a new stadium, but that only lasted one year, Fox says.

“In cases where there have been injunctions when a sports team is threatening to leave a city, it is almost always for a short period of time,” Fox says. “In the Rays’ case, it would be highly unlikely that a court would order an injunction for a number of years.”

Meanwhile, the fervor over Tropicana Field has led St. Pete business leaders to express concern that the team may lave. Two years ago the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce conducted a study that the Rays generate an estimated $92 million each year for the area.

“This is an economic development issue, and we feel it is vital for the Rays to remain in the City of St. Petersburg,” said chamber president John Long.

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