Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld addressed the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on Thursday, his first time in front of a St. Petersburg audience since the team announced its plans to move to Tampa.
In his remarks and in a conversation with the Tampa Bay Times after, Auld provided several new insights into the team's ballpark plans for Ybor City.
1. Whether the new ballpark has a retractable roof might be up to Tampa governments
One thing is certain: There will be a roof at the new ballpark. The heat, summer afternoon rains and lightning make it a necessity, Auld said.
But will it be fixed or retractable? The Rays are now making the case that might be in the best interest of the Tampa community for the roof to be retractable, and its application for baseball is secondary. Auld said it should be a "community decision."
"I do believe it has the most value in winter," Auld said. "If you want to host all sorts of outdoor festivals and events and concerts and bring people into town, and you think that's going to be great for tourism, then let's do a retractable roof. It'll be great for baseball, too, on the days we can use it."
It's not hard to see where this is going. If, supposedly, the greatest benefit of a retractable roof is for non-baseball events, that means that if the community wants it, they're likely going to have to pay for it. And community, of course, means Tampa and Hillsborough governments and taxpayers.
"I think it would be premature to say it comes out of one side or the other," Auld said. "Almost all of this will come a little bit out of both sides. But I think that's one of the important things to think about: What do you get out of a retractable roof stadium, not just for baseball, but 365 days out of the year?"
2. The new ballpark likely won't have an upper deck.
Tropicana Field's infamously empty upper deck has been a sore spot for years. In the years when they were open, rarely did anyone brave the lonely trek to the top. And with the highest rows covered by tarps, the stadium can still look half empty on well-attended games.
The Rays aren't interested in building a massive ballpark. They've talked about "right-sizing" the park to dimensions that they can realistically fill and still make money. It is unlikely in that scenario that the team will need an upper deck, Auld said, which is the most expensive part of a stadium to build that yields the least profitable returns.
"There will not be a what I would call a traditional upper deck that wraps around the field," Auld said. "Behind home plate, that's the best place to watch a game so some amount of verticality there is something we're looking into pretty deeply."
3. The Rays have some zany ideas for ballpark seating, but will MLB approve them?
As Auld put it, the Rays have "challenged our architects to completely throw out the old model." That means a 365-day ballpark that people can walk through at night while traveling from the Ybor bars to Channelside or stop and use the wifi with a cup of coffee during the day. A parent can take their kid there to play wiffle ball in the offseason. The training center can be a base for University of South Florida wellness program and the kitchens can hold culinary classes. They've even half-jokingly discussed a lazy river that circles the park's interior (okay, maybe three-quarters joking). The roof could be as iconic as the Sydney Opera House or have a bar deck.
But it's the ideas about ticketing and seating that are the most controversial, at least to Major League Baseball.
The team has toyed with selling tickets that get you into different parts of the stadium at different points of the game. Auld suggested three innings behind home plate, three innings in a suite and three innings at a play area with the kids. The team also wants to reinvent stadium seating, which has had virtually the same layout for most of the 20th and 21st century. Think, less people sitting in linear rows, more aisles and people clustered in seats around tables.
Auld said the team has shared these ideas with the league. "They're skeptical," he said.
It's not just a reticence to change. It may work for the Rays 81 home games. But what if the team makes the playoffs? Or the World Series? What if they want to host an All-Star game? Major League Baseball would be concerned about the significant limitations for ticket sales for a smaller ballpark that also doesn't have flexibility to add seating due to an unorthodox alignment.
"The seating one in particular is a challenge for physics to be able to get the amount of seats you need in a reasonable amount of space," Auld said. "But I'm in love with it, so I'm going to see if we can do it or do it in a few areas. We've been sitting the same way forever. I'd like to try something different.
"We want to turn small market issues into advantages instead of problems. Ok, we only have 30,000 seats. What can we do to make them all cool."
4. Tallahassee could blow this whole thing up
It's no secret that the Republican-controlled legislature has little appetite to help pay for ballparks with state dollars like in bygone years. But more recently they've also sought to block local government from using taxpayer money for stadiums. Late in the session, Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican, proposed legislation to prohibit localities from using Community Redevelopment Authority money to pay for sports stadium. The amendment was withdrawn Thursday evening but not before giving Rays-to-Ybor planners a scare.
Community Redevelopment funds are a major piece of Hillsborough and Tampa's plan to help pay for a ballpark. (Read more on that here.) Without that tool, there's virtually no path to building a ballpark in Tampa that doesn't rely on a new tax or cutting deeply from other government services, something local politicians said they won't do.
Any action by the legislature between now and opening day of the new Ybor ballpark has the potential to upend plans to bring the Rays over from St. Petersberg.
"It could have dramatic impacts on what we do," Auld acknowledged.
5. The Rays aren't too concerned about losing Pinellas County fans.
The Rays attendance issues at Tropicana Field are well documented. As Auld made clear yesterday, it's why they're moving to Tampa, which he called the "geographic center" of the region with twice as many people living and working within a 30-minute drive.
Turnout at baseball games is largely driven by the amount of people who can get there within a half our. So in doubling the number of people in that zone, the Rays hope to double their attendance, and perhaps sell out a 30,000-person stadium for most games.
That doesn't mean giving up on Pinellas fans, many of which can still get to a Ybor ballpark in 30 minutes (traffic notwithstanding). And any hurt feelings locally about losing the team to Tampa aren't insurmountable, Auld said.
"I truly believe that the vast majority of people who live in the Tampa Bay region think of it as a region now," Auld said. "And while many of them would like the ballpark closer to them, which is great for us, I don't think we're going to suffer too much by talking about moving within the area. If I was up here today talking about moving somewhere far outside of Florida, that's an entirely different story. I think even the toughest critics recognize that we've put forth our top effort here in St. Petersburg and it hasn't gone as anyone would have liked or predicted, and as such it's important for us to be exploring different options."