If, like 60 percent of the 2.5 million people in the Tampa Bay region, you live in Hillsborough County, it takes you a lot more time to get to Tropicana Field than it does to get to Amalie Arena, Raymond James Stadium or even George M. Steinbrenner Field. The teams that play on the Tampa side of the bay are packing them in, and it’s reasonable to assume that once we’re past the COVID-19 pandemic, the crowds will return.
It’s reasonable to ask: Why wouldn’t that be the same for the Rays, a team brimming with excitement after finishing with 96 wins and reaching the AL Division Series last fall?
It’s a long-standing issue. The club is competitive, so why haven’t fans shown up? Were the Rays doomed from the start?
Former Rays manager Joe Maddon, who led the franchise to its only World Series appearance in 2008, weighed in on the topic recently during a Facebook Live appearance hosted by the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House.
“The ballpark belongs on the Tampa side,” said Maddon, the current Angels manager. “It makes it easier to get there after work. That matters. I did like the drawings for the Ybor City (proposed stadium). I thought that was kind of cool.
“It has to be on that side to make it all work.”
Whenever baseball resumes, the team’s ongoing stadium issue will surface again. With seven years remaining on their lease with Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the Rays have begun exploring every option imaginable regarding the team’s future, including a sister city plan that would split home games between Montreal and Tampa Bay.
Let’s forget about all the logistics and Montreal plans. We’re here to ask: What if the Rays actually played in Tampa? Would they be a better draw, or not?
I’d heard all about the inconveniences of traveling from Tampa to Tropicana Field on game days during my first year on the Rays beat last season, but I had never actually experienced it since I lived near the stadium in downtown St. Petersburg.
That changed, though, in late June, when the Rays were scheduled to host the Rangers on a Friday night following a 10-day road trip. My flight from Minneapolis landed slightly ahead of schedule and I hopped into my Uber around 5 p.m.
I had no idea what I was in store for. As we sat in traffic for nearly three hours, I kept refreshing the Waze and Uber applications on my phone hoping for a more pleasing ETA, while also firing off several text messages filled with expletives.
“This traffic is no joke,” I texted one Rays player while sitting helplessly.
“Welcome to Tampa,” the player responded prior to first pitch. “Shit sucks. (It is) why we got no fans in the building.”
By the time we arrived at Tropicana Field, the game was well underway. Now I’d experienced it first hand. Commuting from Tampa to Tropicana Field during rush hour is a Grade-A nightmare.
There are often lots of empty seats early during Rays night games because of the rush-hour traffic getting to the stadium in St. Pete. (Kim Klement / USA Today) More than 22 years after the Rays’ debut, most people agree downtown St. Petersburg was not the ideal location for a Major League Baseball team. After all, they are called the Tampa Bay Rays, a club that has transformed itself into one of the sport’s top innovators and has produced a winning product for a majority of the past decade.
Heading into the 2020 season, general manager Erik Neander called this group the most talented bunch he has overseen.
Yet, here the Rays are — consistently sitting near the bottom of the league in attendance. They’ve ranked either last or second to last in attendance every year since 2011. The last time the Rays averaged 20,000-plus fans per game was in 2010, and the only year they drew 2 million was during their inaugural season in 1998.
Tampa Bay wasn’t competitive in the beginning. It took several years, including new team ownership, for the club to turn the page. However, the Rays have found a winning formula centered around pitching development, run prevention and a deep farm system. But in managing its payroll, the team tends to use a running cycle that filters several impact players in and out of the organization before fans can truly develop a meaningful relationship with the athlete.
“It’s no secret that we don’t lead the league in attendance,” infielder Joey Wendle told The Athletic’s Jayson Stark last May. “I’d be lying if I said guys don’t notice that. So, obviously, there might be some frustration over our lack of attendance, but by and large, most of our focus is on playing baseball. And that’s how it should be.
“I know some people think we might have more fans if we moved to Tampa. But there’s no way of knowing.”
Let’s take a look at the history and start with the actual number of people in each county. When the then-Devil Rays started playing in 1998, the population in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, was about 940,000. That figure is up to more than 1.57 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There’s a drastic contrast in population growth when comparing Hillsborough to Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located. During that time span, Pinellas’ population has seen minimal growth from 877,273 to 974,996. Furthermore, the average household income remains higher in Hillsborough than it does in Pinellas.
By general math, there’s a better likelihood of attracting more fans in a higher populated area with more dispensable income, even if that comes with competing against the Bucs and Lightning for the top sports dollars in the city.
It’s obvious there’s a serious lack of public/mass transportation between the two cities and within St. Petersburg itself. There’s no easy fix to this specific issue with underground methods such as a transit system, which is implausible due to high water tables. Even catching a bus from downtown Tampa to Tropicana Field is unrealistic and requires at least two transfers and two-plus hours for one-way travel.
Planted west of downtown St. Petersburg and way south of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which connects the two cities, there’s no easy way to get to Tropicana Field.
In an unscientific Twitter poll asking for pros/cons of current stadium location, an overwhelming majority of responders agreed the Rays would benefit from a move to Tampa.
“For me, as a south Tampa resident, it takes me about 75 (minutes) to get to the Trop on a weeknight,” one user said. “The traffic over the bridge is very bad. On the other hand, I can get to Amalie Arena in 5-10 minutes on a weeknight during rush hour. It is far more feasible.”
Another response said: “If you move the center of the ‘attendance circle’ so it encompasses more humans and less fish, there are bound to be more attendees like me, as well.”
Nowadays, Tampa boasts a streetcar transit line that offers 11 stops along its nearly 3-mile route. Five stops are located in Tampa’s Channel District, four are in Ybor City and two are downtown. While St. Petersburg is on the rise with several downtown condominiums being built and more bars and restaurants appearing, Tampa undoubtedly holds the upper hand in population, modern development and public transportation.
The Tampa Riverwalk, which was completed in 2015, showcases the city’s waterfront and serves as another outlet that allows fans to move freely from hotels to activities without driving or parking. St. Petersburg is currently unable to rival Tampa’s many accommodations for commuters and sports fans. Tampa’s economic boom and commuter-friendly options are big reasons why the city landed next year’s Super Bowl.
“The continued transformation of our community since 2009 has been truly incredible,” said Rob Higgins, president of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl 55 Host Committee. “This will be a totally new experience from the last time we hosted.”
In a more official polling of fans’ interests in the Rays’ long-term longevity in the region, the Tampa Bay Business Journal revealed that 49 percent of respondents prefer the Rays move to Tampa and build a new stadium there, while 22 percent want the team to stay in St. Petersburg and build a new stadium at the Tropicana Field site. Meanwhile, 15 percent of respondents said they should move elsewhere in Hillsborough County and build a new stadium there, 6 percent prefer a new stadium elsewhere in Pinellas County and another 6 percent said they should stay at Tropicana Field. Two percent of the respondents were left unsure.
Rays players greet fans entering the gates for Opening Day 2019 against the Houston Astros. (Kim Klement / USA Today) Until last winter, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg had been committed to the Tampa/St. Pete area and sought a combination of both private and public funding for a new ballpark, most recently in the Ybor City area of Tampa. That proposed stadium had a fixed roof — not retractable — and an $892 million price tag, but Sternberg pulled the plug on that plan without finding any real solutions for how it would be funded.
Those unknowns also left local business owners wondering, “What if?”
“Having a ballclub that close to us, just imagine how many more days each year to have people before and after a game wander into your bar,” said Steve Mace, owner of Hattricks Tavern in downtown Tampa. “Imagine all of the people coming in from Orlando, staying in the hotels right next to us. There’s a lot of untapped potential here.”
There’s no guarantee the Rays — not to mention local businesses — would make significantly more money from a move to Tampa, but it’s a wild thought that many wish would become reality. Hattricks, a popular Tampa Bay Lightning bar, held watch parties during the Rays’ postseason run last fall, and Mace recalled business was booming not just for his bar but the entire community. Even players took notice of the spark in interest.
“It’s about damn time they showed up,” former Rays outfielder Tommy Pham said after ALDS Game 3 at Tropicana Field.
Last October marked the club’s first postseason appearance since 2013, and Mace said local fans are thirsting for more.
“It was popping and the Rays were going to have all this momentum going into this year because they’re doing so much with so little,” Mace said. “The more sports teams just makes us a stronger city … we don’t want to go backward. We want to keep going forward.”
Bill Sutton, one of Tampa’s top sports business authorities and the director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida, told Stark last May that Tampa Bay is at risk of losing the Rays unless something drastic changes.
“Losing a team says something about a city and a community, and it’s not a good message,” Sutton said. “As Tampa tries to boost its image as a city of the future, it’s doing a lot of the right things. But if you lose a baseball team, that would be a real black eye.”
Ultimately, Sternberg controls all decisions regarding the club’s future. However, he hasn’t exactly been decisive.
“I don’t see it happening in St. Petersburg and would be hard-pressed to see it working in Tampa,” Sternberg said in June 2019.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg on the field before Game 3 of the 2019 ALDS against the Houston Astros. (Kim Klement / USA Today) Since then, he has changed his stance a bit following multiple meetings with local politicians, and there remains some optimism from both parties about keeping major-league baseball in Tampa Bay.
It’s unclear, though, where Sternberg currently stands. He and team presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld declined interview requests for this story last week through a club spokesperson.
“I continue to be optimistic about the Rays,” Tampa mayor Jane Castor said in February. “I look forward to continued collaboration and conversations with the Rays and the county on ways we can move forward to keep baseball, this beloved pastime, in the region.”
“I’m only focused at this point on Hillsborough, Tampa Bay, Pinellas, St. Pete, Tampa and Montreal,” Sternberg said earlier this winter. “So by the five or six years in advance, I gotta have this thing pretty much in lockdown — locked up by 2022 or 2023 and to get to that point by 2023. I need to have some serious decisions made.
“I envision a time with a partial season in Tampa Bay, where we’re consistently drawing 25,000-plus, and a partial season in Montreal, where we’re consistently drawing 25,000-plus.”
In the meantime, the Rays say they’re doing their best to combat the attendance issues. They were hopeful that new ticketing initiatives put in place this season would’ve helped create a spike in attendance, but those ticket packages, which featured an unlimited standing-room-only deal, probably would’ve been more of a small bump than a long-term fix.
There’s no statistical backing that shows fans will magically show up at a consistent rate over 81 home games.
“With four or five games to go last year, we’re fighting for the playoffs, and we had home games against Boston,” Sternberg said during Fan Fest in February. “We had 7,300 people in the building. So if you can tell me how I get from 7,300 to 30,000 because the area is growing in a few years, I’m with you.”
Plus, when a team’s owner refuses to deeply invest, as evidenced by ditching the Ybor City plan and unveiling the sister-city concept, there’s a chance the fans are likely to reciprocate ill feelings.
In Sternberg’s case, though, why would he invest more money into a team that has historically lacked in-person fan support? That’s not a knock on the diehards watching on TV, which is still a big source of revenue — the team is in the second year of a 15-year television contract with Fox Sports Sun, valued around $1.23 billion in total, according to Sports Business Daily — but there’s always plenty to be gained from ticket sales, concessions and parking, all of which are driven by attendance.
The TV market alone could be a reason to keep the Rays in the Tampa area, but at what point are all the empty seats too much to overcome?
After the last time officials spoke, Sternberg still seemed set on splitting the season with Montreal. There are many bridges to cross to get to that point, but that plan at least includes keeping the Rays in the Tampa area.
But does that mean the Rays would build a new stadium in St. Pete, either at Tropicana Field’s current location or elsewhere? Will they revisit another potential site in Ybor City or elsewhere in Tampa? Or will the Rays sit tight on the Tropicana Field lease until 2027, wait for another city to build them a stadium and then move to a new market?
There’s hope the Rays remain in the Tampa area. But unless an actual move to Tampa happens, Rays fans will always be wondering “What if?”
10. "Kind of being that guy" In response to Reply # 0
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