The Tampa Bay Rays are a remarkable success story. On the field, the team has the best record in baseball. Off the field, the ownership group has made smart long-term investments for the franchise even as it focuses on a World Series run this year. All that is missing is a modern stadium, and it is time for principal owner Stuart Sternberg to publicly declare his intentions so the community can come together.
By all indications, the Rays have lost interest in a new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg to replace outdated Tropicana Field. Even as the defending American League champions, the team's home attendance did not climb to the major league average last year. This year's first-place team ranks 21st of 30 teams in average home attendance, and Sternberg dodges opportunities to declare downtown St. Petersburg as the Rays' long-term home. The equivocation sends a message. But it would helpful for him to clearly state where he envisions a new stadium in the Tampa Bay region.
Team officials hoped to keep the fans' focus on the field and delay a stadium discussion until after the season. Yet the public debate is moving forward without them. The ABC Coalition, the civic group that studied potential areas for a new stadium, has finished its public presentations. An investment group is assembling land in downtown Tampa for a baseball stadium, and developers in mid Pinellas and elsewhere are keeping their options open. Sternberg could bring some clarity and save the community a lot of acrimony.
There already are signs of old divisions resurfacing. Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala offers that he does not believe the county would invest in another downtown St. Petersburg stadium, and Mayor Bill Foster shoots back. The Tampa Sports Authority includes a mention of baseball in its strategic plan, and ears in Pinellas perk up. The ABC group makes its presentation to the Hillsborough County Commission, but the St. Petersburg City Council refuses to invite the group and the city attorney threatens lawsuits. Allowing such posturing to fester while the Rays remain disconnected is not constructive to reaching an agreement on a new stadium that the entire region can embrace.
Tampa Bay has grown up since the bitter fight some 25 years ago over whether a baseball stadium would be built in St. Petersburg or Tampa. There is far better regional cooperation on issues ranging from drinking water to transportation to higher education to luring Super Bowls and the Republican National Convention. Political and business leaders throughout the area collaborate more often. The baseball stadium discussion should build on this spirit, not rekindle unhealthy rivalries.
Despite the attendance issues at the Trop, downtown St. Petersburg still has significant advantages: a long-term lease with the Rays, an existing revenue stream that could help pay for a new stadium and land that already is publicly owned. But if the Rays have no interest in a downtown stadium, that alters the discussion. A new stadium will likely cost $500 million or more and require a significant financial contribution from the franchise. And St. Petersburg would have to be compensated if the Rays moved to a new home outside the city before the Trop lease expires in 2027.
As the Boston Red Sox come to town this week, it is understandable that Sternberg is eager to keep the focus on the field. But in the long view, it would be helpful if the Rays' principal owner focused the stadium discussion. Promising to speak directly to the issue after the season might even be helpful. But the sooner the Rays make clear their preference for a stadium location, the sooner the Tampa Bay region can come together on getting a modern stadium built instead of refighting old battles.