Since joining the American League in 1998 the Tampa Bay Rays have played in Tropicana Field, home to the infamous catwalks above the playing field and plenty of fans dressed as empty seats. Managing General Partner Stu Sternberg made a proposal in November 2007 for a new open-air Ballpark on the site of Al Lang Field located on the Tampa Bay waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg. Rays Ballpark would cost $450MM and be ready for the 2012 season however after receiving lukewarm support the project was abandoned in June 2008. The Rays have been looking for a new home ever since.
In an April interview with WFAN’s Mike Francesa Sternberg expressed his commitment to keeping the Rays in the Tampa Bay region. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has approved a proposal to allow the Rays to look for a new Ballpark site throughout Tampa Bay. Previous St. Petersburg administrations have used the Rays lease, signed through the 2028 season, as leverage to narrow the Rays search to the St. Petersburg area. Despite the Rays recent success it has not moved the needle attendance wise, the Rays have been unable to draw 2 million fans since their debut season which in turn has frustrated a number of owners who send a portion of their revenues down to Sternberg and his partners via MLB’s revenue sharing program. He cites his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn, as I did, for doing all he can to keep the Rays in Tampa. “And I will tell you a lot of it really comes down to growing up in Brooklyn like I did, and I think there are people still to this day that are paying the fact that the Dodgers left Brooklyn. It was rough.” This is an easy quote to romanticize Rays fans. The Brooklyn Dodgers were part of the fabric of the Borough, it was the 1940s and 50s where players lived among the community. My Uncle Nick could spot Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella by the cars they drove, a far cry from today’s ball player whose minimum salary is $500k.
It has been 11 years since I visited the Tampa/St. Pete area but would think there has to be a location in downtown Tampa where the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning has flourished. However the Florida sports market is a tough one with a majority of residents transplanted from other parts of the United States. Could a move to Montreal be the answer? Sternberg cites strong television ratings as an indication of fan interest and the inconvenience for fans to drive the 100+ miles from the growing Orlando market to attend Rays games. Fans from Tampa won’t make the trip across one of the two highways that connect St. Pete to Tampa, they certainly are not coming in from Orlando.
Major League Baseball would rather expand than relocate, however in my opinion baseball in Florida does not work April to September. The success of Spring Training, which in part prompted the expansion Marlins and then Devil Rays, has more to do with residents of Northern states fleeing the cold. We’ve had 23 years of Major League Baseball in Miami and 18 in Tampa where the games count in the standings to prove it. I do not see the situation improving for the Rays anytime soon.