While the Tampa Bay Rays have been preparing for the challenge of winning the American League East title, they have also been working on the challenge of getting a new stadium in Tampa Bay. This hasn’t been an easy task for the Rays and it hasn’t gotten any easier over the past few months. Let’s take a look at some of the roadblocks that have sprung up in the last few months.
No Stadium in Channelside: Tampa mayor Buckhorn has long seen a new baseball stadium as the cornerstone of his attempt to revive downtown Tampa. The downtown location that was perfect for the stadium was supposedly the Channelside area, a large parcel of land near the Port of Tampa. Jeffery Vinik, a Tampa developer who also owns the Tampa Bay Lightning, owns a huge portion of the land in Channelside.
That looked like great place to build a stadium until Mr. Vinik announced that his $1 billion “vision plan” for downtown Tampa did not include major league baseball and he would rather see a University of South Florida medical school built on the land.
Mayor Kriseman, Brian Auld, and the St. Petersburg City Council: Across the bay, St. Petersburg Mayor Kriseman and Rays President Brian Auld marched into a St. Petersburg City Council meeting to announce that they had agreed on a plan to allow the Rays to look outside of St. Petersburg for a stadium location. Upon hearing the plan, the council replied, “not so fast, Skippy.”
It seems the plan contained no clear cut answer to whether St. Petersburg would own the development rights to the land under and around the Trop. Given that downtown St. Petersburg is one of the hottest spots on the west coast of Florida,the land is probably worth a lot more to the city as a development than as a baseball stadium. Stunned, Mr. Auld left the room and the Rays have not talked to the city since.
The Citrus Series: In the second series of the season, the Tampa Bay Rays went across the state to take on the Miami Marlins. The series was a success for the Rays as they took two out of three games, but far less of a success in terms of attendance. The three games series drew an average of 18,000 a game and viewing the game on television, the number of empty bright blue seats was blinding.
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To say that the new Marlins stadium has not drawn the expected crowds is an understatement. The last year the Marlins played in their old stadium they were 28th in major league baseball attendance and last year they were 27th. That’s not a huge return on the taxpayer’s portion of a $635 million dollar investment. The significance of this on the Rays is that someday Mr. Sternberg is most likely going to ask the Tampa Bay taxpayers to foot a good portion of the bill for a new stadium. The citizens are going to point to the Marlins experience and say “I don’t think so.”
Montreal: Meanwhile, the new baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, has grabbed the reins of baseball’s new Trojan horse, Montreal. Montreal hosted an exhibition game that drew 45,000 and so they might be right in line for a new team. There was no talk about whether they would repeat that number over 81 games–of course, they lost their original team over lack of attendance. There was also no talk about how Montreal would finance a new stadium. Nevertheless, the threat to Tampa Bay to get their act together is obvious.
All of this was enough for Stuart Sternberg to announce that he was shutting down all discussion with the city of St. Petersburg until after the season is over. I’m not sure what that accomplishes as Sternberg spends precious little time in the area to begin with and Brian Auld is clearly in over his head as a negotiator. Moreover, it is becoming clearer that having the team and a stadium in its current location is probably not in the best interest of St. Petersburg.
Those conclusions would seem to open the door to an agreement that would have the Tampa Bay Rays give St. Petersburg a payout to get out of the lease, development rights to the land, and the cost of the demolition of Tropicana Field in exchange for the the rights to look elsewhere. None of this solves the numerous other problems that face baseball in Tampa Bay, but at least it frees up Mr. Sternberg to look for his “pitch perfect” stadium location. Stay tuned.
Information from various articles in the Tampa Bay Times was used as research for this piece.