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Debate over a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium pits business interests vs. emotional attachment to Tropicana Field

The numbers indicate that for a variety of reasons, Tropicana Field isn’t generating nearly enough revenue for the Rays, but some in the community still feel an attachment to the ballpark.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

The numbers indicate that for a variety of reasons, Tropicana Field isn’t generating nearly enough revenue for the Rays, but some in the community still feel an attachment to the ballpark.

ST. PETERSBURG

For a few, this stadium business is personal. For someone such as Rick Gilkes, how could it be otherwise?

Long before the Rays arrived, before the current mayor was elected, before ESPN had reason to care, Gilkes was working in the building later to be known as Tropicana Field.

He was a welder climbing a ladder between the first and second levels when his foot slipped and he fell about 18 feet onto some equipment. His back was broken, he was hospitalized for a couple of weeks and there was concern he might never walk again.

When he goes to Rays games these days — and he tries to make it to at least a dozen a year — he will sometimes freak out friends by pointing to the spot down the first-base line and recounting the moment he fell in 1988.

So don't tell Rick Gilkes this isn't personal.

• • •

It is a strange thing to be emotionally attached to a building so reviled. Yet for a significant number of people, Tropicana Field is more than the slum of MLB ballparks.

Maybe it has to do with civic pride. Or memories of the long and frustrating pursuit of a big-league franchise. Or the perception of St. Petersburg as Tampa's lesser relation.

Whatever the reason, there tends to be a visceral reaction whenever the worthiness of Tropicana Field or the devotion of Tampa Bay fans is called into question.

"Even when Major League Baseball said you couldn't have a team, we said, 'To hell with you,' and built the stadium anyway," Gilkes said. "There's definitely an emotional attachment involved. We finally had something in the community that other people around the country had heard of."

For St. Petersburg, this is it. When it began building it a quarter-century ago, this stadium, and the big-league team it sought, were supposed to be the solution to the perception of St. Petersburg as a place with beaches, green benches and a ton of old people.

Yet all these years later, the stadium is being called an embarrassment. And baseball fans in the market are being criticized for supposedly lacking passion.

It sounds personal. It feels personal.

But, really, it's not.

It's strictly business.

• • •

Big-league franchises want you. Care about you. Will court you.

But they don't necessarily depend on you, the individual ticket buyer.

More and more, franchises build their revenue around corporate spending. Sponsorships. Signage. Luxury suites. Blocks and blocks of season tickets.

That's where the big money is. That's where the steady income resides.

"It is a shame that this discussion has transformed itself into a discussion about attendance and fan-bashing when the real issue is that baseball is a business, like any other business, that needs to make as much as it can," said St. Petersburg business leader Bob Carter, who was involved in the pursuit of baseball in the 1980s.

"I appreciate that from the Rays' standpoint. There aren't loads of corporations in this market, it's true. I just wish the dialogue focused on what we can do to make it better. Because it's a money issue, and not a reflection of the character of the community."

It's difficult to get baseball officials to reveal exact figures, but the perception is that corporate buyers make up more than 50 percent of season ticket sales in most markets. In some markets, the figures could run as high as 66 percent of the sales.

In Tampa Bay, the number is closer to 33 percent.

"As some of the larger markets have opened new stadiums, you'll notice the seating capacity is getting smaller and smaller," said author Maury Brown of bizofbaseball.com. "That's because they're targeting the corporate base and more expensive seating."

The Rays have never released season ticket data, but some estimates can be drawn from bits and pieces of information gathered over the years.

As best as I can tell, the Rays have a season ticket base of around 6,000. The ratio would appear to be about 4,000 bought by the general public and 2,000 sold to companies. That ratio should be reversed, which means if the Rays have sold 4,000 season tickets to the average fan, they should be selling upward of 8,000 to corporations.

And that means they have a major discrepancy, which is not necessarily the fault of the guy at the end of your cul-de-sac.

The problem is the makeup of the market. There is a limited number of corporate headquarters here for the Rays, Bucs and Lightning to solicit.

And if you narrow it to downtown St. Petersburg, there are even fewer.

• • •

In that sense, the Rays are doing a poor job of framing the stadium debate.

It isn't about the catwalks at Tropicana Field. And it isn't necessarily the loyalty of fans. It isn't even distaste of downtown St. Petersburg, per se.

The Rays are intrigued by downtown Tampa because of what it has to offer: lots and lots of young business professionals in ties, loafers and heels.

Corporate accounts do not fluctuate as much, and that is gold for a baseball team. A bank will buy season tickets whether or not Matt Garza is traded in the offseason. An insurance company will get a luxury suite whether the team wins 90 games or 80. And that is the kind of cost certainty a team needs.

This isn't simply geography. This isn't a question of whether Pinellas residents are more willing to cross a bridge than Hillsborough residents.

This is all about chasing checkbooks.

• • •

Annie Miller cried the day Shea Stadium was demolished.

It was not the grand tearing down of bricks, but the small cracks in her heart. The finality of knowing that those all-day trips from Asbury Park, N.J., she took as a child with her father to watch the Mets in Flushing, N.Y., were now forever left to her memories.

Her father passed away some years ago, but Miller now takes her 95-year-old mother to Tropicana Field. Even with her mother's health and memory diminishing, they have been to 23 games this season. They have grown accustomed to the familiar ushers in their section and the fellow season ticket holders she has known since 2002.

"Going to the game is the only thing I know she truly enjoys and the only thing we can communicate with," Miller said. "Baseball really has no plot, and all the sensory things that go on in the Trop … really brings life to her and I am certain has helped extend her life, too."

It's just a stadium. And a newer facility in a different location makes sense for the long-term viability of the franchise.

It's nothing personal. It's just smart business.

Right?

Debate over a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium pits business interests vs. emotional attachment to Tropicana Field 07/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 24, 2011 1:13am]

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