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Q&A with Stu Sternberg

Posted Feb 24, 2009 by Marc Lancaster

Updated Feb 24, 2009 at 03:34 PM

PORT CHARLOTTE – Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg made his first appearance at the team’s new spring training facility today. After taking a tour of the place, he spent about 20 minutes chatting with reporters about various topics, including the new digs, the effect of the economy and his team’s flexibility when it comes to adding to the payroll during the season. Here’s a transcript of the highlights of the Sternberg Q&A session:

Q: What are your first impressions of the new spring training complex?
A: It’s awesome. The place is spectacular. I’m proud of the whole organization, to be able to execute on this and put what we felt was going to be a first-class facility together and that is obviously the case.

Q: Are you excited about your team this year?
A: How can you not be? How can I not be? I am, I really am. I think we did everything we set out to do in the offseason. We were able to do it. We had some questions going into the offseason if we were going to be able to execute everything that we wanted to and we batted 1.000.

Q: What are your early indications of how the Rays are going to fare in this economy?
A: Unfortunately, we had a real taste of the bad economic environment last year. I think specifically the Tampa Bay region was ahead of the curve on this one. There’s times you want to be ahead of the curve and times you don’t. So I think we felt a bit of the brunt of it last year. In addition to that, last year we spent the bulk of the season with $4-plus [per gallon] gasoline. Our average fan traveled 28 miles or so, and that adds up to a lot of money if you’re making one of those 20-, 30-, 40- or more-mile trips to the stadium, and what we found last year in our questioning was it was a significant factor. So, yes, the economy, nationally, has gone south quite a bit more since then. The region itself has gone south as well, but not as dramatic, comparatively. I think we know what it is to operate in that environment, and given that, I think we’ve kept and made things very affordable. We’ve still got free parking for four people or more. Our competition is for other entertainment dollars. As we’ve looked back and I’ve looked back, even in the worst of times in the ’30s, movies did fairly well, and it’s really about the entertainment dollar and value. I think we provide a lot of that, and it gives people the opportunity even with just a few trips to the ballpark to follow us 250 days a year. But it clearly is something that is very much on my mind and very much on the mind of people in the organization who should be fixed on it. And I’ve gone a long way to make certain that the people in the organization who should not be fixed on it are not fixed on it, but are really concerned about providing the best experience and are able to do that without it hanging over their heads.

Q: Your player payroll is up while others are cutting or holding the line. How do you see that playing out with your team?
A: Well, we don’t operate in a vacuum. Clearly, we were able to do some things in the offseason that if it was a year ago or six months before, there was no possible way we’d see some of the players here that are here right now. We were able to, clearly, with Pat Burrell, and augmenting the bullpen, we were able to do things that just weren’t able to be done. As you know about me, I like to ying when other people are yanging a little bit, and I think while it’s going to be a difficult time throughout baseball and we have our challenges, I’m very excited in bringing a lot of value and having the fans realize that and support us.

Q: Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman said after the Burrell signing that it would limit your flexibility to add payroll going forward. Is that the case?
A: You never say never. I think in past talks I’ve had in spring training and other times I’ve responded and said we’ll have that flexibility. Well, we don’t have that flexibility now. At some point, you put yourself back to the wall, and I think that’s where we are right now. We, quite frankly, can’t really afford what we’ve got on the field this year, but at least we were able to spend the money on a lot of value, we think, and pieces that will give us the opportunity to grow the franchise over the long haul and give us the best opportunity for success this year. Some of my competitiveness came out in this and I think we have a real opportunity to win. It doesn’t leave us any flexibility, but if you come around to June or July, the answer might be a little different.

Q: Are you hedging a bit in hoping attendance will be up from last year despite the economy and help you out?
A: That’s a piece of it, yeah. It wasn’t the best year to win, let’s put it that way. But I don’t look at it in absolute numbers, solely. Most of this is a relative situation. We drew [1.7 million people] and change paying last year. We can run our business better drawing a million seven and change when the average attendance is two million than drawing two million people when the average attendance in baseball is 2.6 [million]. Now, I’d love for all the teams to sell out their places all the time and we root for the other teams to do really well, but the problem with that is that we get left behind. We’ve done a lot of work on it, and one thing I will say is that we went back to 1985 and there’s only been one organization, and it happened twice with the same organization, the Marlins, that the year after they got into the World Series they were not above the league average in attendance. I think it’s pretty clear to everybody that’s not going to happen this year. Not that I want to be number two, but in fact that’s probably going to happen and we’re girding ourselves for that. But that’s the reality of it. This is a very relative business. If we drew two million fans, which would be spectacular, if everybody else is drawing three and a half or four, we can’t run our business. If we draw two and everybody else is drawing two, we could knock ‘em dead.

Q: How are your ticket sales so far?
A: The ticket sales are good. I’m always pleased when we’re selling tickets, and I will tell you even from the first year we came on, ticket sales were up a bit, it was 10 percent or 15, 20 percent. I was really pleased. This year is not an exception. We’re up as far as season tickets and I think we’re again offering a compelling enough value and there’s enough value for a season-ticket holder, but clearly we’re being throttled somewhat by the economy. But again, on the same hand, we’re still going to be next-to-last in baseball [to the Marlins] in season-ticket sales. I didn’t think we were going to move up to 24th in the offseason, so I’m pleased with where we are and the growth but we clearly have a ways to go yet.

Q: So you’re not disappointed you didn’t make a bigger leap?
A: No. I think we’re right at expectations, if there is such a thing, and I think most importantly we’re seeing a level of excitement, people coming in in the teeth of a bad economy. You never know what to expect, so your expectations change a little bit, but we’re doing OK and we’ll see what follows behind it. We’d like to have more. We’re going to need more. But we’re not there yet. This is no panacea, but it certainly puts us on better footing.

Q: How much satisfaction do you have about how much you’ve changed the culture of the organization since you took over?
A: That was what the whole mission was. It’s amazing – we thought we had made enormous strides the first year in redoing [Tropicana Field] and changing the attitudes and whatnot, and clearly winning last year had an enormous effect on it, there’s no denying it. But I didn’t recognize what a big part that the name change and the look was a part of that. We found, in doing our studies and surveys, that was a real big part of it. It’s something that we wanted to get right and we couldn’t rush the year before. I mean, I wouldn’t change anything, but we probably could have moved the needle a little bit by having it done the year before. But it’s pure satisfaction.

Q: Some of other owners have advocated a salary cap or zone. What do you think about that and how it would help you?
A: I don’t know if it would help us. I’m not a believer in a salary cap. I believe in a salary structure, and unfortunately the word ‘cap’ has got a connotation to it. I would expect that we’re going to have a much broader salary structure put in. Anything that’s going to allow for more competitive balance, true competitive balance. It’s not to say, yeah, this team got into the World Series one year and this team got into the World Series. While that’s great and it meant the world to us and it’ll mean the world to the next team that comes in or to the Rockies or whoever it is one year to the next, it’s about sustainability. Clearly, there are a lot of teams that can’t go into the season year in and year out expecting to have a five- or eight-year run of good times. There are a few that can, and the difference there is the amount that is spent on salaries. I don’t begrudge players making what they can make. It’s still America; people should be able to make what they make. It’s got to be in the right interests of the sport and what can grow the sport and we need a whole new structure, I think.

Q: Are you talking about a higher luxury tax or some other specifics?
A: There’s so many moving pieces to it that can be addressed. Clearly, a lot was done before we came in as owners, and if those changes had not been made we would not be here today. [Such as] more revenue sharing. This franchise wouldn’t be here today [without it] – or certainly it wouldn’t be in this part of Florida. And it wouldn’t be here, being able to get to the World Series if not for the enormous strides that were made in revenue sharing. But there’s a long way to go yet. You can come up with a whole laundry list, but the issue with a laundry list is that every time you try to do one thing it’s got an effect on the other side, so you have to be careful. You cap salaries, that’s great. But if there’s a minimum, I can’t afford to run my business. So then you have to share more revenue, but teams don’t want to share more revenue. If we think about it, not about money but about competition, I think we could come up with the right answers.

Q: So there’s no specific plan that you’re proposing?
A: I have one in my mind, but I’m sure 30 owners and a number of people in the commissioner’s office have got ideas. Like anything else, whether you’re dealing with what’s going in Washington, you like part of the plan and you don’t like another part of the plan, it’s really about how the pieces fit together. You can attack it from the draft, from a tax, from how long players are with you, the union has got to be a part of it. But I think Bud Selig, the one thing that is so great, really, in what he does, is to just say you put the best interest of baseball first. I think, this being a microcosm of that, competition, I believe, is good for the best interests of baseball, and if we just look at it and say ‘How can we improve competition?’ as opposed to who gets paid what and when, I think we can make a lot of strides.

Q: Do you have to get to the playoffs this season for it to be a success?
A: No. It’s a goal. It’s certainly a goal. But no, clearly not. … There’s no way to replicate what happened last year, from soup to nuts. Not to say we can’t win 97 or 105 games as it was last year or more, but the whole feeling and everything that went around it, if we can just take what happened and be successful, then, great. Clearly, we want to win a lot of games this year and we know we can do it as opposed to think we can do it.

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