Tampa Bay Rays Stadium Bedlam

Bryan HoltCorrespondent IMarch 16, 2010

In the spectrum of not-so-breaking news, Tampa Bay Rays ownership is not a huge fan of their team playing at Tropicana Field, America’s favorite giant warehouse. Owner Stuart Sternberg said they’ve done all that they can to make the facility adequate, but it just does not invoke an ideal baseball atmosphere.

In 2008, then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker established a group called the ABC Coalition. The coalition’s job was to determine whether or not the Rays needed a new stadium, and they quickly decided that it was necessary. Their job then became finding the three best sites where a proposed stadium could possibly be built.

This is where they went from simple focus group to controversial entity.

Today, the ABC Coalition will meet with the Pinellas County Commission to discuss the three sites that they find most suitable for a stadium that has not even come close to being agreed upon yet. The part of this that sparks controversy is that two out of the three sites that they will discuss are located in neighboring Hillsborough County (read: Tampa for those of you unfamiliar with the area).

The Rays happen to be on one end of a contract that promises that they will play in the city of St. Petersburg until 2027. Let the technical evaluations begin.

I’ve heard many of the business explanations of this deal and honestly do not understand the vast majority of them. This is why I have simplified the scenario down to common language.

  • The Rays are under contract to play in St. Petersburg until 2027, but teams break contracts like this all the time often leading to messy lawsuits.
  • Rays ownership has said that the team simply cannot play at Tropicana Field for the remainder of this contract.
  • The Rays draw some of the worst attendance in MLB playing in St. Petersburg.
  • Tampa has roughly 100,000 more residents than St. Petersburg, but St. Petersburg officials almost seem more willing to let the Rays leave the state than cross the Howard Frankland Bridge.
  • Charlotte, North Carolina would really like a baseball team.

Now to even have this debate, one has to first assume that the Rays actually need a new stadium.

While Tropicana Field has been dubbed a league-wide laughing stock, it is actually not that terrible of a place. It is a comfortable environment for watching a game during the blistering Florida summers.

The fact that the stadium is indoors attracts snickers from many, but also guarantees spectators that they will see a game after they make the 30-minute trek from Tampa. Yes, a retractable roof would be nice, but the Trop was built in 1990 and it’s not called SkyDome.

So maybe the main reason to build a new stadium is to appease the owners and keep the Rays in the area all while increasing team profits to supplement a more consistently competitive payroll. A more convenient location would be nice as well.

The Glazer family did this same thing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they bought the team in 1995 and it worked with the Tampa populace. Residents voted in favor of building Raymond James Stadium largely out of fear that the Bucs would leave town.

However, the Rays do not have nearly the civic support that the Bucs had at their similar juncture. St. Petersburg is an older community that is made almost entirely of northern transplant residents (read: Yankees and Red Sox fans). When news first surfaced that the Rays wanted to build a stadium that would likely use public finances, there was complete outrage.

Old folks protested outside of city hall in their favorite northeastern team gear and chanted for the Rays to please leave town. Hardly the bandwagon effect that Sternberg and friends were looking for.

But none of this was enough evidence for St. Petersburg politicians to admit that maybe their town wasn’t the best place for the Rays. When Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan invited the ABC Coalition to speak with the Hillsborough County Commission, St. Petersburg officials went into panic mode. Hagan tried to explain that he was more interested in making sure that the Rays do not leave the Tampa Bay area all together than he was claiming the team for Tampa, but the Pinellas suits generally didn’t listen.

However, if they looked around they wouldn’t have much trouble understanding why the Rays belong in Tampa.

St. Petersburg is a nice spring training town. So are Bradenton, Sarasota, and Port Charlotte, but you won’t see anybody throwing those towns professional franchises anytime soon.

During their 2008 World Series runner-up season, the Rays averaged 22,259 fans per game, or a 52.8 percent attendance average. During a 2008-2009 campaign where they were among the worst teams in hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning drew an average attendance of 16,497, or an 85.6 percent attendance average. The Lightning play their home games in downtown Tampa, one of the ABC coalitions three favorite locations.

If bad hockey can draw, good baseball will have no problem. Having a team in Tampa increases the sales of business season tickets which makes attendance a more consistent statistic. The Rays currently rely very heavily on walk-up crowds for most games.

There is of course the argument that no one city in the Tampa Bay area can supplement a major professional franchise by itself. However, just because that may be true doesn’t mean that it’s not more fiscally wise to place teams closer to the region’s major center of economy.

When the Tampa Bay Rowdies became Tampa’s first professional sports franchise in 1975, they adopted the “Tampa Bay” distinction so that they would represent the entire Bay Area instead of just Tampa. That theory has since stuck, but it does not mean that Tampa isn’t the primary money-maker of the community.

The New England Patriots represent all of New England, but the Patriots play right outside of Boston, not in Maine.

This chaos will likely not have a clean ending. However, if the Rays end up moving to Charlotte instead of downtown Tampa or the Florida State Fairgrounds (where a $1 billion sports/entertainment complex is being discussed), then all fingers can be pointed across the Howard Frankland to St. Petersburg.

Come on, Pinellas. Do it for the community.

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