Stadium Puts Rays In A Sticky Situation

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—It's as hot a topic in the Tampa Bay area as the reasons for the Rays inconsistent offense this past season.

But while the Rays bats hibernate for the winter after losing to Texas in the divisional playoffs, the debate concerning where they will eventually play rages stronger than any hot stove trade talk.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said early in the season he doesn't want to move the team from the Tampa Bay area. However, with little spike in attendance at outdated Tropicana Field after the team made the playoffs two of the past three seasons, including a World Series appearance in 2008, he made it clear to the city of St. Petersburg the Rays need a new stadium to generate more revenue.

St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster has said he will not let the Rays break their lease with the city, which runs through 2027. He is also adamant about them remaining in St. Petersburg and not moving to Tampa, which is 20 miles across the bay.

The Rays say they can't survive economically averaging 23,024 per night, which ranks 22nd among baseball's 30 teams. They say the Trop, known for its sloped shape and catwalks, is outdated with limited space for corporate suites and in a remote location from fans surrounded by water on three sides. Management maintains a centrally located stadium with a retractable roof in Tampa would provide the necessary attendance spike by drawing more fans from Lakeland and Orlando and increase team interest to make the franchise more sustainable for the long-term.

Foster counters, noting fan interest is higher than ever, with radio and television ratings in Tampa Bay ranked seventh in the majors, according to an article this summer in the Sports Business Journal. He cites that Tampa's depressed economy , where housing prices have dropped 40 percent and unemployment has reached 11.80 percent, which exceeds the national average of 10.20, ais a huge reason why fans aren't attending. Bad timing has also played a factor. The Rays hoped for a substantial attendance boost following their first World Series appearance two years ago, but that occurred when the economy was tanking.

Extending A Hand

Foster proposed an amendment to the lease this summer so the Rays could explore property in areas next to the city but still in Pinellas County where the Trop sits. The Rays rejected the proposal.

"We have a use agreement that obligates both parties until 2027," Foster said. "So I couldn't build them a new stadium any more than they could ask for a new stadium without an amendment to the agreement. Mr. Sternberg made his position very clear about also wanting to look in Hillsborough County (Tampa). But we will not waver from that.  . . . They will continue playing at the Trop."

The Rays declined comment for this story.

Foster said the team generates $200 million a year in economic impact for St. Petersburg, and he will not let the city lose that revenue.

"I don't think there's anything the Rays or Major League Baseball can do to mitigate the pain and irreparable harm it would cause to St. Petersburg if they left," he said. "We built them a house and didn't charge them anything. We still owe $100 million on their house, and they want a new house. I'm willing to explore the possibility of them getting a new house, but you're not leaving St. Pete. I'm just protecting the interest of the citizens of St. Petersburg." 

Regarding the area's depressed economic state, Foster referenced a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in October against defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, also a divisional rival, which was blacked out because the game wasn't a sellout. Until this year the Bucs sold out every game since moving into Raymond James Stadium in 1998.

"People just don't have as much expendable income," Foster said.

In addition to the economy, Foster said the team is still developing its fan base. He views the Rays as a three-year-old franchise because of their struggles their first 10 seasons. "From 1998 to 2007 it was a miserable product," Foster said. "Then you had 2008, 2009 and this year, and they're fun to watch and the product is entertaining. We still need to raise a generation that loves this baseball team. They didn't do that from '98 to 2007."

As for the Trop's location, Foster said that should not influence fans' attendance.

"I'll never criticize anybody in Tampa," Foster said. "But if you love the game and you love the team, just find a way to do it. The fans who don't love the Rays but might want to see the Yankees don't complain about the distance. They want to see their team."

"I'll always be a fan of the Trop. You need a roof for when the summer rains come to keep fans comfortable and allow the game to be played. And it's a rare occasion when the (catwalks) come into play."

The lack of attendance came to a head in late September, when after 12,446 attended a game in which the Rays could have clinched a playoff berth, team mainstays Evan Longoria and David Price criticized fans.

Swiftly capitalizing on the attendance talk, the Rays held a promotion two nights later giving away 20,000 free tickets. Team president Matt Silverman said the idea had been discussed before the players' comments. But whether it was market research or simply a good faith gesture, fans responded, scooping up the tickets in an hour.

New Era, Similar Results

When Sternberg assumed ownership of the franchise from Vince Naimoli in October 2005, he immediately pumped $25 million into stadium renovations and has since added a larger scoreboard, video wall, a new sound system, an outfield touch-tank featuring cownose rays, and other fan-friendly attractions.Other fan-friendly attractions included a kids carnival, designed for kids ages 5-8, featuring a variety of games with every child winning a prize that bears the Rays logo; and the Ted Williams Museum, which was moved from Citrus County two hours north and houses an impressive array of memorabilia. The team also reworked its brand, introducing new uniforms and exercising the "Devil" from its name prior to the 2008 season.

It all helped, just not enough, according to the Rays. Attendance has increased from 1.3 million fans in 2006 to nearly 1.9 million this past season. But the hope was to push closer to baseball's average of approximately 30,000 a game or about 2.5 million annually. Season ticket sales and corporate sponsorship have also lagged.

Further fueling the stadium controversy was a report in October from ESPN citing unnamed sources that Commissioner Bud Selig "instructed Ray's management not to make significant financial investments in the area until attendance indicators improve."

Rays management denied the report when it came out.

Foster took it with a grain of salt. "Nothing surprises me," he said. "I think there's a playbook out there on how to get new stadiums. First, you criticize the facility. Then you criticize the fans, it's not a baseball town, they don't support us. Step three: stop investing in both, the facility and the fan base. Step four is to identify cities that want and can support baseball. We're seeing some of that. And step five is to start talking to those cities and use them to play against each other. This is part of the tried and true playbook."

Attempting to work with St. Petersburg officials, Sternberg proposed a 34,000-seat open-air waterfront stadium several miles south of the Trop at the team's former spring training complex in 2007. The thinking was it provided the cheapest site to build on and could attract people and businesses downtown.

But the idea never resonated with politicians or St. Pete residents, and the team postponed a November 2008 referendum on the issue. Foster said he was against that from the beginning because of location, timing and a lack of a permanent roof.

Even if Sternberg reversed course and sold or considered moving the team, cities mentioned as possible suitors such as Charlotte, Las Vegas and Portland do not have stadiums ready to house a major league team. Also, with Tampa Bay among the largest media markets in the country, the Rays might not find a better situation than where they play.

Moving Forward

So that leaves the team and the city in a standoff, with neither side blinking. Foster said he doesn't expect to hear from the Rays unless they are reconsidering his offer.

"All I'd say to them is thanks for a great season and we'll continue to be partners with you through 2027," he said.

There are independent committees on both sides of the bay seeking stadium sites. One of the most frequently mentioned sites in Tampa is the State Fairgrounds, where land is available. Sternberg and other team officials told the Tampa Tribune in June they are hoping a regional task force will be created to find a site for a new ballpark.

Who would pay for the Rays' field of dreams is also at issue, with Sternberg saying taxpayers or private investors would have to pick up more than half the cost, which has been estimated at $500 million or higher.

Sternberg was quoted in June as saying the Rays had not spoken with or been approached by representatives from other cities. Either way, Sternberg, like Foster, said he expects it will take years of discussion before a site for a proposed ballpark is finalized.

"I'm not out of here," he told the Tribune. "I'm staying here. We're not putting shovels in the ground in the next two to three years. The ball's got to keep moving, that's all."