By Pete Williams
Runners hoping to park in Tropicana Field lots near the start of Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in St. Petersburg will have to pay $15.
If they wish to park at The Trop on Friday or Saturday for mandatory packet pick-up at the event’s health and fitness expo at the beloved dome, they’ll have to pay another $15.
That’s $30, which is more than it costs to enter most 5K events, few of which involve parking fees, as well as more than most tickets to Tampa Bay Rays’ games. (Registration for the Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon itself began at $55 and gradually rose to $105. Expo registration will be $125).
In a Tampa Bay Times story yesterday, race organizer Competitor Group pointed the finger at the Rays for the parking fees. A city official said it’s between the Rays and the promoter (Competitor). Rays vice president Rick Vaughn, the best PR guy in sports, must feel like he’s having a flashback to the Vince Naimoli era, spinning what seems to be a petty situation all around.
“The Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon Expo is a commercial enterprise and, like all for-profit events at Tropicana Field, its promoters are required to pay a parking fee,” Vaughn told The Times.
Vaughn is right, of course, though all this has little to do with revenue from a few thousands vehicles, probably much less given that most runners will seek out cheaper parking further away. After all, this is a crowd that doesn’t mind walking a mile or two to run 13.1.
The situation has much more to do with entitlements of race promoters, city officials mesmerized by dubious economic studies, and perhaps the ongoing friction between St. Pete and the Rays over the team’s future ballpark.
When St. Pete and Competitor Group announced the event in May, Mayor Bill Foster cited a $12 million economic impact, even though the much larger, established Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa reports an impact of roughly half that. Philip Porter, an economist at the University of South Florida who has long criticized sports economic studies, suggested St. Pete’s numbers were highly inflated since the vast majority of runners figured to be local.
Nonetheless, Foster plowed ahead, committing $30,000 in city support, including police and road closures, expenses race promoters typically foot on their own. The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Sports Commission committed $100,000 to promote the race by taking out ads in national running magazines – even though Competitor Group itself publishes several prominent endurance sports magazines.
But where Foster really got into murky water was by asking the Rays to let The Trop host a health and fitness expo (and packet pickup) for free – a $60,000 value. You have to think the Rays, run by team president and avid marathoner Matt Silverman, might have written this off as another of the many community goodwill gestures the team has made since Stu Sternberg took over as principal owner in 2005. Heck, Sternberg didn’t charge Rays fans for parking for the entire 2006 season and continues to offer some degree of free parking to carpools of four or more fans.
Unfortunately for runners, Foster and Sternberg have been involved in a stalemate over the Rays future for more than two years. Sternberg wants to consider new ballpark sites outside of St. Pete (i.e. Tampa). Foster keeps pointing to a Tropicana Field lease that runs through 2027.
So here we are, with runners contemplating parking options, shuttles, and the logistics of a race that starts at one venue (The Trop) and ends at another (North Shore Park).
Who to blame? There’s plenty to go around.
COMPETITOR GROUP: The San Diego-based promoters could (should?) pay the Rays and pick up the parking. They received much more consideration from the city than other race promoters. Not only that, it was only a few years ago that local promoters had to convince St. Pete to let anyone host a half-marathon. All Competitor had to do was waive an economic impact study to get Foster excited. Last weekend, the organizers of the Chilly Willy Duathlon picked up the new $5-per-car entry fee for athletes competing at Fort DeSoto Park in St. Pete. A smaller event, to be sure, but still a big hit by a local promoter who doesn’t get any of Competitor’s considerations from the city or county.
There’s nothing that irks people more than paying for parking. They never remember the steep prices they paid for sports and entertainment tickets, along with the $10 per beer. But they won’t forget the $15, $20, or $30 they had to pay to park. Speaking of sports tickets…
THE TAMPA BAY RAYS: Only in the warped alternative reality of professional sports does a city have to ask permission from a tenant to stage an event in a building the city owns (but the team operates). But that’s how sports works and, in fairness to the Rays, they’d like nothing more than to make The Trop available to the city of St. Pete for health expos, packet pickups and other events 365 days a year.
The Rays seem to be on the right side of this argument, but we wonder if it’s worth the PR hit. Yes, this parking revenue is covering their costs, but all runners will know is that they had to hand over $15 (perhaps twice) to the same lot attendants who work Rays games.
The Rays, as you may have heard, have some attendance issues. And while it’s true that the people who get up before dawn on Sunday mornings to run half marathons generally aren’t the same people who sit around for three-plus hours drinking beer and watching B.J. Upton, there’s going to come a time when a Rays stadium issue is going to be placed on a ballot somewhere in the Tampa Bay area. As the Buccaneers learned, those votes can be awfully close.
Sternberg and his staff have done most everything right since taking over in 2005, with the exception of grossly underestimating the opposition to development along the St. Pete waterfront and thinking Pat Burrell had a heart.
The Rays ate $16 million on the Burrell deal. Seems like $60,000 wouldn’t be a bad PR investment, though again the lion’s share of the blame goes to the one man we know won’t be running 13.1 miles on Sunday:
MAYOR BILL FOSTER: This guy quickly has established himself as the biggest ego we’ve seen in Tampa Bay politics, and that’s saying something. The logical thing would be for Foster to go to Competitor and say, “Look, we’ve bent over backwards for this event, given you far more cash and consideration than we should have. And now all of us are going to lose some serious goodwill over this parking issue. Now I may not know much about endurance sports. To me a half Marathon is what I had left after eating part of a chewy candy bar, but I hear you guys have added a lot of these events over the last year or two. Seems like you might have to cut back like you did with those Nutty Buddy races. What? Muddy Buddy? Okay, whatever, point being we want to have you back and I think you want to be back. So why don’t you go to the Rays and meet them halfway for, say $30,000?”
Failing that, let’s line up Mayor Foster and Stu Sternberg for a 5K.
If either finishes in under 30 minutes, parking is $30.
If not, parking is free.