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Rays dream of their field of the future, with driverless cars, sofa seating and drone-delivery concessions

SOMEWHERE IN TAMPA BAY — It's the year 2023, and the Tampa Bay Rays are playing at home.

A self-driving car drops you off at the gate. No ticket counters are in sight. As you walk in, a scanner communicates automatically with your phone or watch to confirm your monthly game subscription.

As you head over to your section and plop onto a couch, it feels more like being in a living room than a ballpark. Through an app on your phone, you order drinks, food and a new Rays shirt, which a drone delivers to your seat in minutes. Young professionals are playing a game of Giant Jenga, mingling around high-top tables.

A baseball game is going on, but so is the perfect happy hour and hangout.

This isn't just fantasy baseball inside the executive offices of the Tampa Bay Rays; they're doing some serious brainstorming on how to create a new, high-tech stadium — if and when they get past the basics, like picking a location and getting financing.

The Rays have collected nearly 4,600 ideas from fans and community members so far. The challenge, they say, is capturing and staying ahead of technological advances as the concept comes together.

"It's incredibly difficult to do," said William Walsh, vice president of strategy and development for the Rays.

Some of the toughest decisions faced by the Rays' executive team involve creating a stadium in a technology environment that is changing so rapidly that multimillion-dollar investments, like a parking garage, could become irrelevant in 15 years if self-driving cars become the norm.

"It was only 10 years ago that the first iPhone came out," Walsh pointed out.

In those years, Major League Baseball has changed rules that speed up game play to better capture the attention of younger generations.

Stadiums and entertainment venues long ago began morphing from paper stubs to scanning tickets electronically. Like most stadiums, the Rays and phone companies like Verizon and AT&T have struggled to meet growing Internet demand for fans, who constantly tweet, snap, post and stream videos. While watching the game, they want to check statistics and zoom in on replays. And those fans have made it clear, Walsh said, that if they can't be connected they'll just stay home.

With the lowest attendance among major league teams, the Rays think they need nothing shy of a total stadium overhaul to puts fans in the seats.

The team's current home, Tropicana Field, was built in downtown St. Petersburg in 1990 and was the last ballpark of its generation, Walsh said. Just a couple of years after the stadium was finished, Camden Yards in Baltimore turned the industry around completely, from multipurpose closed stadiums to urban community centers.

"It was a 180-degree change . . . to largely urban ballparks focused on integrating into the surrounding community," he said. "Not around a big moat of parking."

The last 15 or so years of stadium construction have followed that model. But Walsh said that this time, the Rays "want to have the first of the next generation of ballparks."

After meeting with community groups and collecting fan feedback, Walsh's team is wrapping up their "blue sky" plans and laying out a sense of the future Rays stadium experience as they trudge further into the site selection process.

On a broad scale, Walsh described that next generation as a hangout with areas for families, young people and more traditional fans. People can sit or stand around and spend time together, rather than lined up in row after row like they're crammed into the middle seat on an airplane.

"We want to have the most intimate fan experience in Major League Baseball," he said.

They're looking at all angles, though, and finding inspiration well outside of the sports world. Like how Apple did away with checkout counters at its stores and sets up appointments for customers so that they don't have to wait. And how Disney World installed the FastPass system so families don't need to wait hours in line to ride Space Mountain. Or the way Amazon's individualized advertisements suggest products a consumer would want to buy based on past purchases and search history.

Walsh and his colleagues are even considering whether they should move away from game-day tickets, and launch a monthly subscription service in which fans can drop by as often as they want.

Advancements with drones and virtual reality are still too new to apply to the baseball fan experience yet, but the Rays are keeping a close eye on whether they could be integrated.

"We're on the cusp of a real revolution," Walsh said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA.

Rays dream of their field of the future, with driverless cars, sofa seating and drone-delivery concessions 03/03/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 3, 2017 9:36pm]
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