The last four years of the Rays’ Stadium Saga, as it has become known, can be encapsulating up quite effectively in one word: pointless. There has been moments when excitement has bubbled up- most notably in the St. Petersburg Waterfront Proposal back in 2008 and the Carillon Proposal in 2012- but talks always ceased to a screeching halt as inadequate local support and an unwillingness to compromise made any hope of progress fade away. This year, we hope that things will change, and the Rays and commissioners from Hillsborough tried to get things off on the right track in 2013 as they talked Rays stadium in a public forum on Thursday. Noah Pransky of WTSP, tweeting from the Shadow of the Stadium (@StadiumShadow) Twitter account, had the highlights.
The Rays took this meeting seriously. They sent their big guns to the forum.
Ken Hagan, the head of the Hillsborough County Council, directly responded to St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster’s comments where he said that he expected the Rays to honor the Tropicana Field lease, which runs until 2027. Hagan undoubtedly would want a new Rays stadium based in Hillsborough County, but the bottom line is that something has to happen or the chances are going to get higher and higher that the Rays are eventually going to leave Tampa Bay for another city. These talks have to happen and a plan has to put into place.
There has been some talk that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is planning on selling the team, but Sternberg wholeheartedly denied that and acknowledged that he's in this for the long haul. He wants to find a solution to this problem and set the Rays up for a strong future with a stadium that gets the attendance that the Rays deserve considering just how good they have been the last five years.
"Winning cures a lot of problems"- well, it hasn't for the Rays. The only time the Trop has been full has been Opening Day and the Postseason. That's it. When the Rays are in a situation where they win a ton of games, winning 90 games three years in a row, and still can't draw crowds, there's a serious issue going on.
There may be a serious problem, but that problem is not fans that wouldn't support the team no matter what. The issue, the Rays have always argued, is that fans would come if the stadium was more accessible. The Rays have done great on TV and radio, increasing as much as you would expect a consistently-contending team like them to increase. But Tropicana Field and all its problems, physically and, more importantly, geographically, are what has prevented the Rays from receiving the type of support they should be getting.
This was quite a controversial comment- are the Rays saying that several current Triple-A markets would be better for the team than Tampa Bay? The answer to that question is no. Instead, Kalt is focusing on the point that the Trop is in such a terrible place that it diminishes the potential of Tampa Bay residents to get to it, decreasing the viability of the market and the Rays' ability to draw fans. What the Rays need is not a new location in the US but a new location in Tampa Bay that will give fans exponentially better access to the stadium and get attendance figures up. The Rays believe that there are stadium sites that can do just that.
There's a possible piece of the solution- a bus stop that can help the masses arrive at the Trop. The stadium is just so hard to get to and anything that could facilitate the process of getting people there would be a major improvement. Being a New York guy, I'm sure Sternberg dreams about the way the Yankees have thousands and thousands of fans arrive at Yankee Stadium through the subway, dodging traffic and making the stadium a short ride away. That's not about to happen in Tampa Bay, but when Rays fans are in a situation that driving is pretty much the only way they can get to the Trop, it certainly gives them disincentives to go considering some fans don't have cars and ordinary people fear the price of gas and the possibility of traffic. The Rays' next stadium being centrally-located will certainly help, but finding away to assuage the people who can't or don't want to drive to games is a key factor as well.
This comment is even more controversial- how could Sternberg say something like that? There are several things to gleam from that comment. Sternberg is pitting the Rays and the Tampa Bay area against Major League Baseball, which sounds strange but makes sense if you look at it from the perspective of a classic speech in a sports movie. "It's us versus them. They don't think we have a chance, but I don't care. If we believe in each other and work together it doesn't matter what they say- we can do this." Included as part of that is that Sternberg is implying that even if MLB no longer believes in the Tampa Bay area, the Rays organization still does knowing that the market has unexploited potential and a solution can still be found that benefits everyone involved. Like we mentioned above, MLB looks at the Rays' situation in Tampa Bay and their first thought is "if they're winning so many games, why is their attendance so unbelievably low." Sternberg's response to that would be that their are underlying factors (i.e. the Trop) that are making the Rays' situation in Tampa Bay experience problems like no MLB team before it. But even if Tampa Bay is in a unique situation, the bottom line is that it doesn't mean that it can't be just as good.
The bottom line is that if the Rays are still playing in Tropicana Field in 2027, that would mean that everything failed in the Tampa Bay market and the Rays would be preparing to move to another city. No one wants that. This is a horrific situation right now, but there's still time to fix it as long as the parties involved stop being stubborn and are willing to make concessions to break the stalemate. That has to happen.
Overall, the parties involved emphasized their dissatisfaction at the current stadium situation for the Rays and their desire to get to the bargaining table and figure out a solution. No specific stadium sites where allowed to be mentioned at the meeting per the Rays' contract with the city of St. Petersburg (Hagan said that straight-out), but Hillsborough County and the Rays have the right mindset and are ready to make something happen to end the never-ending cycle of futility that has undermined these stadium talks. Now we need to see how Pinellas County will respond next week and see how everyone responds once the cards are on the table and decisions will need to start being made.