In a series of articles over the past few years this forum has followed the progress (or lack thereof) for the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball in their pursuit of a new stadium in the greater Tampa area.
The team currently plays in Tropicana Field, an indoor domed stadium facility built in the late 1980s and opened in 1990, which has been renovated several times at the personal expense of the Rays’ principle owner, Stuart Sternberg, to bring certain modern amenities to the fan experience.
The team has been locked into a lease that prohibits them from relocating the team or pursuing alternatives for a new facility outside of the St. Petersburg city limits. The team has stated numerous times in the past, with MLB executives backing it up with similar statements to the media, that the team cannot compete with larger market teams because of the current stadium.
The revenue streams from the agreement with the city is unfavorable to the Rays and with Mr. Sternberg using so much of his own money to maintain the facility, the St. Petersburg municipal government decided to grant the ownership of the team a three-year grace period in which to pursue proposals for a new stadium within the Tampa Bay area.
The ownership of the team and MLB executives in New York have long maintained that the location of Tropicana Field relative to the population centers in downtown Tampa is what has hurt the attendance of the club, causing them to lose money. The argument is that, from their perspective, a location that was more central or conveniently located to the downtown area of Tampa would be ideal for a new facility.
The Rays ownership pursued a few different locations and stadium concepts that I have detailed over time on this blog. The team’s ownership found their best opportunity in a proposal around a parcel of land in an area of downtown Tampa known as Ybor City.
That neighborhood was at one point very unsafe and was near the waterfront which was riddled with drug related activity and crime. The Tampa city officials, about twenty years ago, started a revitalization plan for the Ybor City neighborhood. This resulted in the area becoming a destination for nightlife, restaurants, bars, and retail.
The Rays were working with the neighborhood in Ybor City to construct a new $900 million baseball stadium on the parcel of unused land that was agreed upon with Hillsborough County officials. The three-year window referenced earlier to get the framework of a stadium deal agreed upon is expiring in three weeks.
However, the proposal was filled with uncertainty and vague commitments from the county government on funding. The proposal was also lacking many major infrastructure details to the point where MLB and the Rays had to announce on Tuesday that the Ybor City stadium plan would not move forward.
The Rays ownership has spent millions of dollars in trying to get a new facility built in the Tampa area over the course of the past thirteen years. The facility in Ybor City, had it progressed from proposal into an approved agreement would not be ready for play until 2024. The clock is literally ticking for the Rays in the Tampa area because each day that passes means that the timeline of the project gets pushed further into the future.
That is where the press conference on Tuesday during the MLB Winter Meetings took on a feeling of weary acceptance of the reality that the club will most likely remain playing in Tropicana Field until the troublesome lease term ends in 2027. The team will literally not have a home after the 2027 season if some other developments do not take shape in the next three years.
The post-2027 timeline is another direction that this story has inevitably taken with speculation that the Rays will ultimately seek to relocate to another city. The current ownership group remains committed, at this point at least, to trying to make a stadium deal work in Tampa. However, once those options are exhausted they may be left with no other choice but to consider relocation.
The Rays ownership has certainly built the case for relocation out of the market with repeated attempts for close to fifteen years to get an agreement on a new facility which would have easier accessibility for fans (according to them and to MLB assessments) and would provide them with a better revenue situation for competition with larger market teams.
The Rays have difficulty historically with getting top free agents because of their market size and revenue situation with being able to compete for top talent with other teams that have better attendance or that play in new facilities. The situation with the Rays is very similar to the struggles that the Oakland Raiders of the NFL had with Oakland and trying for several years to get a new facility built there, before ultimately deciding to relocate the franchise to Las Vegas in 2020.
The rumor mill is spinning with relocation ideas of the Rays going to Charlotte, Nashville, or Montreal. Those three cities would work from a geographical sense with the Rays playing in the American League East division. The move to Charlotte makes sense from a demographic perspective, with so much growth there and people from all over America relocating to that city. The city also has great corporate sponsorship opportunity with Honeywell just relocating their main headquarters as an example of the growth potential of Charlotte.
Nashville is an up and coming city with a population boost and with a demographic of young people that MLB is trying to attract to their sport. The league does not have a presence in that part of the southeast except for the Atlanta Braves, so this could serve as an American League outpost in the region.
Montreal will always make the most sense for a relocation or expansion franchise for MLB because of the history of the Expos. The most worrisome variable for a professional sports team that is started through relocation or expansion is in building the fan base. The “x factor” that Montreal brings to the equation is a ready-made base of loyal fans of the Expos which also would solve for the marketing aspect of the scenario as well. Expos gear and apparel still is sold in Montreal and the nostalgia for that team will bring a diversified group of fans back to the sport.
It is a long-shot to start planning the Rays move to Montreal or anywhere else because the team does have fans in Tampa and they have been in that market for 20 years. Most professional sports leagues are very sensitive to moving teams because it will alienate a group of people that have invested time, energy and money into supporting their product (in this case: baseball).
In my view, I have covered many sports teams’ relocations from the L.A. teams being moved into that market by the NFL, to the Raiders move to Las Vegas, the Coyotes potential move out of Arizona in the NHL, and the move by the owner of the Columbus Crew in MLS to move a soccer team to Austin. The common themes there are unfortunately present in this case with the Rays in Tampa: ownership that is trying and willing to spend money to commit funds to a new facility and being fought every step of the way by the politicians or residents that do not want public money spent on an asset like a sports stadium (which I completely understand).
I have visited the Tampa area and I know the area around the downtown and throughout the area to St. Petersburg. I have written previously about how Tropicana Field is an adequate facility and that maybe the focus should be a major renovation to that facility to retro-fit it to the standards of the new facilities within MLB.
In the cost-benefit analysis if the renovation was too inefficient, then another idea would be to build a new facility on the same parcel of land right next to the current facility like many other professional teams have done in recent years.
The news on Tuesday means that the Rays will be playing in their current home for the foreseeable future, what comes next is a mystery, and only time will tell whether or not their next home is nearby or very far away from Central Florida.