ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays unveiled plans to renovate Tropicana Field on Tuesday, touting the creation of a 360-degree walkway around the lower bowl, an open air meeting spot in centerfield and smoother access from the rotunda entrance to the seats.
"This project will significantly improve the total ballpark experience," said Michael Kalt, the team's senior vice president for development and business affairs. "It will make it much easier for our patrons to navigate the ballpark and allow them to enjoy the game from exciting new areas and dynamic new vantage points."
The renovation includes the removal of about 3,000 seats, mostly to make room for the walkway. Drink rails will allow people to meet on the walkway, while watching the action. Several rows of seats that remain above the leftfield walkway will be covered by tarps because views are likely to be obstructed by standing fans. No tarps are planned for rightfield because the walkway will run where the top three rows used to be.
A few hundred more upper deck seats also will be tarped, with stadium capacity dropping from more than 34,000 to 31,000. Those upper deck seats rarely sell, Kalt said, and concentrating fans in a smaller area will add a sense of intimacy.
Smaller stadiums are a trend in baseball. They can boost advance sales if fans worry that walk up seats will not be available.
The Rays have contended for years that they need a new stadium because the Trop is outdated and badly located. Attendance last year trailed every team in the major leagues, even though the Rays made the playoffs.
The renovations, expected to cost nearly $750,000, do not signal retrenchment from the team's desire for a new ballpark, Kalt said. But they do reflect an uncertain future, where construction time alone for a new stadium could consume at least three years.
"This is a statement that we are committed to our fan base in this area," Kalt said. "We know we are going to be in this building for a number of years."
The team will foot most of the bill, he said, though a small amount will come from a Trop maintenance fund that builds up over the years from the city's share of naming rights and ticket revenues. The City Council last month approved spending $1.3 million from that fund for off-season work, including restroom upgrades, piping work and other maintenance needs.
One hallmark of new stadiums is a design that lets fans move around the ballpark without being cut off from a field view. During games, thousands of people may wander to various entertainment and gathering spots.
A fan in a leftfield seat wants to hang out with a friend in rightfield? Now they can meet somewhere along the walkway.
The Trop had an existing lower walkway that ran from foul to foul pole. The new arrangement extends it all around the stadium.
Centerfield featured a restaurant behind dark glass, giving hitters a contrasting backdrop when the pitcher threw the white ball at them.
The roof and walls of that restaurant have now been removed, opening it to the playing field. A semi-opaque screening will be installed in the center portion, so batters can still see the ball. But portions on both sides will remain open to the field.
That restaurant area will connect directly to the Captain Morgan party deck in leftfield, and a new mingling area in rightfield, overlooking the rays tank.
All of this new "meeting space" will feature concession stands and some bar-type seating. An escalator will connect it to the ground floor rotunda entrance, allowing fans who enter the stadium from the east to access the field quickly, then move to seats around the interior walkway.
This arrangement "will get people in where they can see where they want to be and get to and not have to follow a bunch of signs," Kalt said, referring to the Trop's current maze of escalators, dingy concrete hallways and entrance ramps to the field.
Roughly two-thirds of fans enter through the rotunda. Most people who buy food do so on the ground level before moving to their seats, including fans who sit in the upper deck.
The new arrangement will let them linger in the centerfield "meeting area" if they like and watch the first inning or so while they eat.
Kalt said the changes will add value to outfield seats because of the new offerings in center field. The team had tried adding "neat and cool" spaces to the stadium before, such as the Captain Morgan party deck, the rays tank and restaurants, but the stadium was so chopped up they were hard to reach.
Now, he said, the team has created an atmosphere "where you won't be stuck in your seats for nine innings."