Rays close the upper deck at Tropicana Field, shrinking baseball’s smallest seating capacity

Fans who bought season tickets in the upper deck at the Trop for 2019 will be able to claim seats in other sections for the same price, the team announced.
Fans touch the stingrays in the touch tank during the Tampa Bay Rays opening day against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on March 29, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Fans touch the stingrays in the touch tank during the Tampa Bay Rays opening day against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on March 29, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Published Jan. 4, 2019|Updated Jan. 4, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Pitching to create a more intimate atmosphere at Tropicana Field, the Rays announced Friday they are closing the stadium's upper deck for next season, part of a reconfiguration plan that will reduce the dome's capacity by about 5,000 to 6,000 seats.

In announcing a number of stadium improvements — the most notable of which is creating a new seating and socializing area beyond the left field fence, as well as installing LED lighting and a new turf playing surface — the Rays will also shutter the Trop's often sparsely populated 300 level upper deck.

Fans will no longer have the opportunity to watch games from a bird's eye view behind home plate, and while the team would have

The party deck above left field will remain.

"These renovations mark our continued commitment to providing a first-rate fan experience at Tropicana Field," said Rays President Matt Silverman. "Together, in concert with the reduction in seating capacity, these investments will help create a more intimate, entertaining and appealing experience for our fans."

That capacity will now be reduced to about 25,000 to 26,000, according to the team.

On most nights, the Trop's upper deck is mostly empty. The Rays' average attendance of 14,259 last season ranked 29th of 30 major league clubs. Only the Miami Marlins (10,014)  drew fewer fans. The Rays closed the Trop upper deck for most games in the 2002 season, then reopened it in 2003 after the team hired Lou Piniella to be manager.

While closing the upper deck removes the least-expensive tickets from the Tropicana Field seating bowl, the cheapest price point will remain but be shifted to other sections of the stadium.

The team will allow season ticket holders in the 300 level upper deck to switch their seats to the outfield or the left field party deck for no additional charge. What will happen for current upper-level ticket holders beyond 2019 hasn't been determined.

Upper-level price points will still be available in thousands of seats around the ballpark, and the Rays will continue their $7.11 Friday game ticket promotion — which was previously for upper deck seats — for different seating areas in 2019.

Only 10 to 15 rows of the upper deck were available for seating, with the areas above covered by tarps. Those tarps were removed during parts of the 2008 postseason to provide additional seating.

One of the main selling points of the Rays' proposed stadium plan in Ybor City — plans that owner Stuart Sternberg said were no longer viable as last month's Winter Meetings — was creating a more intimate baseball experience with a smaller stadium. The seating capacity for that plan was 28,216.

The Rays have invested $50 million in Trop renovations since Sternberg took over control of the team in 2005, and more-recently took into account focus group data gathered when planning the Ybor stadium – which called for being closer to the game and more socializing spots throughout the ballpark – into this offseason's changes.

The Rays aren't the first team to close its entire upper deck. The Athletics tarped the upper deck at the cavernous Oakland Coliseum from 2006 to 2016, but reopened it in 2017.

The team has been considering closing the upper deck in recent years, and the discussions became more serious when planning out last year's renovations, which included a $7 million overhaul of the stadium's concessions.

This offseason, the club — believing that gap in the quality of fan experience between the upper deck and lower bowl was growing —  decided that instead of continuing to invest in the maintenance of an area of the stadium that draws few fans and gets little traffic in the 300 level — and sinking the costs of staffing, cleaning, concessions — it would be better to invest it in the lower level.

Instead, the team is placing focus on creating a new gathering area where fans can meet up and still be in full few of the game.

In the lower bowl left-field seating area above the crosswalk that was previously tarped, the Rays will also introduce the Left Field Ledge, a premium seating area with full view of the field for small groups that will include a full-service bar, ledge tables and seated drink rails. The numbers of seats that areas will have is to be determined because it is still being built out.

The Rays announced Friday that LED lighting will be installed for on-field lighting and throughout the stadium, a move that will brighten what is considered one of Major League Baseball's darkest facilities. LED lighting also helps reduce lighting costs and enhances high-definition television broadcasts.

Tropicana Field will also get a new field turf for the third straight year. The Shaw Sports Turf surface will be similar to the one the facility had last year, but will be designed to withstand the number of different events the stadium hosts over the calendar year.

Attendance was down across the major leagues last season, with total attendance dropping below 70 million for the first time since 2003. The average attendance was 28,830 a game, down from 30,042 in 2017.

Times columnist John Romano contributed to this report.