The Tampa Bay Rays open their 13th season on Tuesday with baseball's most talented team and most outdated stadium. That is not a sustainable model. For long-term success, the franchise needs a modern stadium that generates larger crowds and more revenue. The serious brainstorming needs to start now to ensure the Rays remain in Tampa Bay — or the number of Opening Days in this market are numbered.
This is not a call to start pouring concrete this year or next year or even the year after. The Rays' lease at Tropicana Field does not expire until 2027. But anyone who believes the Rays will be playing at the Trop in 2020 is ignoring the economic realities of Major League Baseball.
Time is running short. As today's charts on the front and back of Perspective illustrate, it takes years to plan and construct a stadium. There is the time it will take to agree on a site, find the construction money, probably hold at least one voter referendum and build. That does not account for variables such as environmental issues, lawsuits, multiple voter referendums if the first one fails, and construction delays. It could easily take a decade to cover all of these bases.
That's why serious stadium talks need to begin now or certainly before Opening Day 2011. The Rays' first pitch for a new stadium, along downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront, failed to win public support. The ABC Coalition, the civic group formed in the wake of that debacle, focused the discussion about Tropicana Field's shortcomings, the Tampa Bay market and potential stadium sites. But its work is done, and there is a lack of leadership and vision in determining how to proceed.
St. Petersburg holds the contract with the Rays, yet Mayor Bill Foster's administration is curiously passive with the team and unnecessarily hostile to the ABC group and other players in the region. The Rays do not appear interested in a new stadium on the Trop site, but principal owner Stuart Sternberg has yet to clearly address the issue and is waiting on the city.
The Rays are a regional franchise with a regional fan base. It will require a regional approach to keep the team in Tampa Bay. Here are five ways to elevate the discussion:
Perform a Thorough market study. The Rays won't do it because critics would charge bias. St. Petersburg is clinging to the lease. A regional group such as the Tampa Bay Partnership should raise the money for a comprehensive analysis of the market, which could take a year to complete.
Create a regional sports authority. The Florida Legislature could do it next year. A sports authority with members from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties could provide vision and regional consensus. Professional sports facilities are so expensive that their cost should be shared by the entire market. That's how Denver and Milwaukee raised the public money for new baseball stadiums.
Play a handful of Rays games at Steinbrenner Field. For two years, the Rays played three midweek games in Orlando at a similar facility. They could do the same thing in Tampa. The Rays complain they draw Hillsborough fans to the Trop on weekends but not on weeknights because of traffic. See what happens if the Rays play in Tampa and the opponent is not the Yankees or Red Sox.
Think creatively. What if the Rays agreed to return to St. Petersburg for spring training and invest in a first-rate facility in return for permission to check out stadium sites within the Tampa Bay market outside St. Petersburg city limits? The Rays have a 20-year lease in Port Charlotte, but they could stay there for another decade and find a way out.
Talk candidly. Sternberg should be frank with St. Petersburg city officials and baseball fans. If he has no interest in a new stadium at the Trop site or elsewhere in downtown St. Petersburg, he should say so publicly. That would help focus the discussion and prompt city officials to more seriously explore the Gateway area in mid Pinellas.
The Rays open this season at the Trop with high expectations. By next season, some progress should be made on securing the team's future in Tampa Bay for decades to come.