Power to the People! Not Exactly

by Michael Heyward

Saint Petersburg, Florida. The arena smells of feet and stale beer.  I see empty blue seats and drab grey concrete slabs.  The stands are lined with the colors of the opposing team.  You guessed it, I am at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays: perennial contenders in Major League Baseball from the relatively small market region of central Florida.  Perhaps even more downtrodden than the appearance of “The Trop” is the dismal effort to replace the terribly aged stadium with a state of the art venue within the Tampa Bay metropolitan area.  According to ESPN, since 2012 the Rays have finished dead last in average home attendance.  This season looks no better as the Rays, despite being in 1st place at the time of this writing, are on pace to finish in the cellar of MLB attendance.   

                                                                                                                 Tropicana Field   (photo courtesy of djwebblog.wordpress.com)

                                                                                                                 Tropicana Field   (photo courtesy of djwebblog.wordpress.com)

  According to the Tampa Bay Times (an organization that has dedicated countless writers and resources to covering the local baseball club) the Rays must be granted permission from the city of Saint Petersburg to search for potential stadium sites in the more lucrative city of Tampa.  For several reasons, most of which involving money, the Saint Petersburg city council has been less than willing to grant said permission.  The current lease agreement does not expire until 2027 and rumors of relocating the franchise out of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area altogether (word on the street says Montreal) are swirling more swiftly than the umpire’s verbal calls inside empty Tropicana Field.  To borrow a cliché’ from just about every politician who ever lived, maybe it is time to give the Rays “to the people!”  If the public were allowed to own, at least in part, United States sports franchises, then perhaps, at least in part, long term stability issues stemming from relocation could be avoided.

When analyzing publicly owned U.S. sports franchises, the Green Bay Packers stand out as the most prominent example.  Despite being amongst the smaller market teams in the NFL, The Packers have enjoyed the fruits of having rabid fans, many of whom own the club.  According to Packers.com, 360,584 people own shares of Green Bay Packers stock.  Since the club’s inception, stock has been offered five times with the most recent offering occurring in 2011.  During the 2011 offering, the Packers were able to bank roll the expansion of Lambeau Field, a new and improved audio system, and two new high definition video boards.

Green Bay Packer's Lambeau Field (photo courtesy of jsonline.com)

Green Bay Packer's Lambeau Field (photo courtesy of jsonline.com)

To be fair, aside from raising money, the amount of actual power these shareholder enjoy is rather limited.  Be that as it may, perhaps the sense of formally belonging to the franchise contains a residual value that cannot be appraised in terms of dollars and cents.  Perhaps this sense of belonging has aided the long term stability of one of the NFL’s smallest market franchises.

Publically owned teams are much more common overseas, where football (soccer for us westerners) is king.  Two great examples are behemoth clubs Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona of Spain.  Both are world-recognized brands and according to Edward A. Fallone, Associate Professor at Marquette University Law School, public investors are, to an extent, included in team decisions.  

“These teams operate as socios, a form of non-profit organization where fans of the club pay an annual membership fee for the right to buy season tickets in a special section of the stadium and the right to vote on certain management decisions”

Are these privileged fans negotiating the next Lionel Messi mega-contract? I highly doubt it.  Do these privileged fans experience a greater sense of belonging due to their voting perks? Quite possibly.

As for the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps the examples set by Green Bay, Madrid, and Barcelona have left a trail of bread crumbs that lead towards long term stability.  Maybe selling stock and rewarding the stockholders with a “sense of belonging” and marginal exclusive perks, would allow the Rays to pay their way out of Saint Petersburg.  This beckons the question that If the Rays were able to offer several thousand shares of stock to the residents of the Tampa Bay area, would the Rays be able to raise enough cash to liberate themselves from their current Saint Petersburg lease?  Unfortunately, I honestly do not know.  What I do know is that I am sitting in a stadium that smells like feet, I am looking at concrete slabs that make me believe that I am in a psychiatric ward, and the rumors of relocation to Montreal are almost as loud as the cheers from the visiting team’s supporters.  Godspeed Rays.

 

Quote from Professor Fallone was retrieved from the Marquette Sports Law Review, Volume 25, Fall 2014 Edition.

MLB attendance figures were retieved from http://espn.go.com/mlb/attendance