Last night, I attended a symposium titled “The Business of Professional Sports” at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. The event was attended by Stuart Sternberg, Principal Owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, Jeff Vinik, Owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Bryan Glazer, Co-Chairman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was moderated by Mary Byrne, senior deputy editor for the NFL, NHL, and NASCAR at ESPN and president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, and Ernest Hooper, columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. The event was sold out, packed with media and fans, including national media like the NYT and the Daily News. I wasn’t expecting that.
The event was entertaining and very informative. As a baseball fan, and super Rays fan, I was mostly interested in the Sternberg questions, but as the night went on, I became interested in everything.
The first question was the biggest challenge facing each of the individual franchises. Predictably, Sternberg said the biggest challenge facing the Rays is their stadium issue. “Our facility and its placement”, he stated.
He also added that another challenge was, “Making sure we are doing our best to keep sports relevant…. many of us in this room, I would think, we sort of read the paper like Jewish people do, from right to left, we start at the sports section…it was always natural for me.”
You youngsters have no idea what that means, but for those of who grew up reading the spawts section, that made me chuckle. Fond memories of reading the New York Daily News as a kid, and yes. I started at the back, with the sports section, working my way left to the comics.
He added that it was a challenge keeping fans interested when there is so much competing for our entertainment dollar and our attention. He said most of us were probably itching to check our phones (wrong). I was engrossed in what they were saying.
Sternberg was asked about the situation with the New York Yankees and Stubhub. Sternberg phrased it as a security issue. He said he wanted to know who was entering his stadium. I call utter bullshit. When I purchase my ticket on Stubhub, they know who is purchasing the ticket by my credit card information and that information could easily be relayed to the Rays. If I were to purchase my ticket off a scalper outside of the stadium, which is legal in Florida, the Rays would have no way of knowing who purchased the ticket. In addition, I am thoroughly searched before I enter the stadium so the security risk is pretty minimal. I wish I could have questioned him further on that question.
He was also asked where the Rays are on the stadium search. He didn’t really answer the question. He answered like a politician. We need a new stadium, we’ve been searching since 2008, and we appreciate this new mayor who has given us this opportunity. You will be shocked to find out that all three owners are VERY PRO PUBLIC FINANCING of stadiums. I know! We could not possibly afford a new stadium all on our own. All three touted the benefits of a stadium. People will travel to see our stadium. Who wouldn’t want to be here? We have great weather! They go to the beach, they spend money, they go to restaurants.
According to Jeff Vinik: “The fact of the matter is if you look just at the financial model for stadiums, for facilities, if the objective is to 100% privately finance a new ballpark or a new arena, the economics are not going to work. So, uh you cannot finance the whole thing privately and then run the business. You’ll be so underwater. It’s just not financially feasible. I think sports teams are critically important to an area. I’ll give a personal example of the $2 billion real estate development we’re doing downtown. We are including a lot of companies right? And I got asked the question once, is it important that major league baseball stay in the Tampa Bay region? And my answer very simply when I’m talking to these companies is, if we lose major league baseball here, I’m not going to be able to recruit a company because the first thing they are going to say to me is ‘you couldn’t even keep baseball in your region. That’s not a place we want our employees to come.’” Sounds logical.
Sternberg was asked about diversity and openly gay players in baseball. He believes that the atmosphere in baseball has changed enough that it would be very accepting of an openly gay player. “I think, quite frankly, it will be very accepting — a dramatic difference even from five years ago.” He noted that the Rays as an organization are supportive of gay rights.
The owners were asked about women executives in their sport. Sternberg noted that as he looked around the room, “while it is male dominated, there’s a reasonable percentage of females in the room tonight.” (I was very happy to see another woman of color in attendance.) He said 10, 20 years ago, there would have been no women in attendance. He pointed out Melanie Lenz, the Senior Vice President of Strategy and Development of the Rays, who was in attendance. He said baseball needed to do a better job of hiring more women and improving diversity. He said, “There’s a leg up for people who have played the sport always, however, fortunately we have gotten to a point now where the general managers and the people in charge… it doesn’t matter whether you have been a big baseball fan or not, (we want) people who can code. We want people with interesting ideas. It’s a question of time, but it’s no doubt about it that we’ve moved too slow (hiring women).”
He also spoke about how when he purchased the team, “We had nowhere to go but up. We could do some crazy stuff. We could innovate and incubate.” He noted that now, the problem is they are being penalized for winning.
When the event was over, I walked over the Melanie who was talking to Rays President Brian Auld. I waited patiently until she was done and introduced myself. I told her I write for a baseball blog she’s never heard of. She was very nice. She laughed and said, “Why haven’t I heard of it?!” Why not indeed?
I asked her, “I know you’re very busy. I won’t take much of your time. What advice do you have for a woman who wants to get into this field?”
She seemed excited to be asked a question. I don’t think she expected to be interviewed and seemed flattered. She said, “Work on every project you can find. Don’t pass up any opportunity. Learn everything you can. Just total immersion. Lots and lots of hard work. And you need good luck. Work on interpersonal relationships.”
“Did you know from the start this is what you wanted to do?”
She said smiling, “Since I was a a little girl.”
She then told me she needed to go, but she reached into her purse, gave me her business card, and said, “Email me.”
Had I realized Sternberg was that close, I might have been tempted to ask him a question. (And wow, I really need to iron my shirt.)