Times Have Changed; So Should TSA

The Tampa Sports Authority is very much in the news these days. Make that the cross-hairs – courtesy of rookie Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, who has called out the TSA on its relevance and efficiency. And has even called for its abolition.

Whatever the ultimate scenario, it’s a valid issue.

Some context.

When the (11-member) TSA was created as an independent special district in 1965 by the Florida Legislature, its charge was to jumpstart a football stadium. Initially, it would be the home of the University of Tampa Spartans.

More to the point, a big time stadium was the necessary means to the successful end of attracting an NFL franchise – the one that became the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who debuted in 1976. A series of pre-season NFL games had paved the way. In 1998 the TSA would replace Tampa Stadium with the state-of-the-art Raymond James Stadium.

At its inception, the TSA, which is not self-sustaining, received annual payments of $60,000 and $30,000 from the city and county, respectively – as required by the establishing legislation. (Today those sums are $600,000 and $1.3 million, respectively, as supplements to $18.7 million from sales tax; $8 million from stadium operations; $3.6 million in golf revenue; and $1.8 million in interest from bond funds. What’s paid out goes largely to RayJay bond debt ($18.7 million), stadium ($10 million) operations and golf ($3.6 million) operations.) Additionally, the TSA was granted deed-holding powers by the Legislature.

Along the way, the TSA also was charged with developing other sports facilities and playing a lead role in wooing additional pro franchises, equestrian events, bowl games and even Super Bowls to a city that was hardly a household name in the world of sports.

The Rowdies, Mutiny and Bandits came and went – but helped ratchet up the city’s national profile. The American and Hall of Fame Bowls morphed into the highly successful Outback Bowl. Legends Field and the Times Forum came on line, and the spring-training New York Yankees and the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning became integral parts of the bay area sports-and-entertainment synergy.

New reality

But that was then, and this is now.

Tampa is the hub of a major sports market. The heaviest lifting is over.

Moreover, Hillsborough County now owns the property for Legends Field, the Times Forum and most of RayJay. The TSA operates and maintains three municipal golf courses and RayJay. (The TSA also retains ownership of the portions of the stadium – such as the luxury boxes and ticket offices – occupied by the Bucs.)

So the question – and it seems rhetorical – is: Given all the changes in the TSA’s mission and responsibilities since 1965, why shouldn’t it submit to a major reappraisal and possible – even probable – overhaul? Or more?

The game has changed since Tampa needed an independent public agency to put the undersized Florida city that wasn’t Miami or Disney-Orlando on the national map by targeting sports as an industry. Loyalty born of nostalgia mustn’t be confused with reduced relevance today.

Interestingly enough, among those who wouldn’t disagree with the aforementioned, non-rhetorical query – or its premise – is David Mechanik. He’s the current chairman of the TSA and a board member since 1997.

At a recent appearance at the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa, Mechanik — while taking issue with “mismanagement” characterizations and presumptive financial savings — agreed that it’s “not unfair” to pose the re-evaluation question. “We’re open to that,” he said.

“But before we change something,” he underscored, “let’s look at the alternatives.”

In other words: Do we really want the county to run something else?

And the county, ironically, is the crux of the issue.

The TSA arguably doesn’t have enough to do. It competently manages RayJay; maintains the best turf in the NFL as well as three golf courses; and is a key player in pitching the NFL for the 2009 Super Bowl. It does important, community-enhancing, sport-specific work — but not enough of it. And it’s fair to ask why TSA Executive Director Henry Saavedra should make nearly as much ($185,723) as County Administrator Pat Bean ($191,880), who, among other things, has to put up with the county commission.

The problem is the messenger. Being criticized by the Board of County Commissioners – with a grandstanding Brian Blair as point man – is like being taken to task by Chuck Roast. To many, the commission itself is still synonymous with dysfunction. Former wrestler and erstwhile “Killer Bee” Blair has all the gravitas of Aunt Bea.

And yet the message – the need for a long overdue, major reappraisal of the TSA with everything on the table — is on point. Scrutinizing oversight can no longer be overlooked.

And David Mechanik, one suspects, knows it.

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