The Rays’ closing the upper deck makes sense, unless it was your baseball home

The Rays announced Friday their plan to close the upper deck at Tropicana Field in an attempt to save money and create a better fan experience. But to those who made the upper deck their baseball home, it feels like a breakup.
Meraya Pegg has her arm around son James, and is holding friend Michael McGee in Section 312 of Tropicana Field during a Rays game in 2018. Meraya and husband Justin have been season ticket holders in Section 312 for 10 years.Credit: Courtesy of the Pegg family.
Meraya Pegg has her arm around son James, and is holding friend Michael McGee in Section 312 of Tropicana Field during a Rays game in 2018. Meraya and husband Justin have been season ticket holders in Section 312 for 10 years.Credit: Courtesy of the Pegg family.
Published January 4
Updated January 4

ST. PETERSBURG — Life looks different 10 years later. For Justin Pegg, there is a new job, a new home, a new son. He has traded in the sports car for a more family friendly SUV, and his wife has started her own business.

And yet the one place where the view has remained constant is from Section 312 at Tropicana Field. Pegg, 38, has had the same partial-season-ticket package for the Rays for almost a decade.

He knows the ushers. He's friendly with a couple of dozen fans. His 5-year-old son, James, has grown up in those seats, and Pegg was asked to be the godfather of a 1-year-old sitting nearby.

And now that's all about to change.

The Rays are closing the upper deck at Tropicana Field, ostensibly to consolidate expenses while creating a more energetic atmosphere in the stadium. Season-ticket holders in the 300 Level are being told they can choose more expensive seats in the 200 Level and the outfield for no additional charge.

The Rays are closing the upper deck at Tropicana Field, ostensibly to consolidate expenses while creating a more energetic atmosphere in the stadium. Season-ticket holders in the 300 Level are being told they can choose more expensive seats in the 200 Level and the outfield for no additional charge.

"It sounds cheesy, but we became sort of like a family up there,'' said Pegg, a regional sales manager for Amazon. "Over the years I thought about moving to other seats, but it was affordable, and we had so many friends that we kept renewing. But to be honest, the 300 Level has become a ghost town the past couple of years. They didn't keep up the amenities as well as the lower level, and there were some games when there was only one concession stand open.

"It's kind of a shock, and I'm a little concerned all of us won't be together in a new section, but I'm kind of excited about it, too. If they're giving us upgraded seats, that's pretty cool.''

This isn't exactly a radical idea. Oakland, another franchise with attendance problems, has similarly shut down its upper deck. The Rays, under previous owner Vince Naimoli, shut down the upper deck for most games during the 2002 season.

Though the lack of attendance is clearly a factor, Rays president Matt Silverman says the move is also about logistics and providing a better fan experience. Because fans have been scarce in the upper deck, the team has not invested as much money in upgrading restrooms and concessions in the 300 Level. The team had to deal with a fire on opening day last season when concessions were turned back on.

"At this point, it's just not a major-league experience on that level,'' Silverman said. "We've spent $50 million upgrading this stadium in the past 10 years, but the upper deck has fallen further and further behind because there wasn't the demand up there. There is no good business case to invest more money on that level.''

Though fewer cheap tickets will be available with the upper deck closed, Silverman said about 5,000 seats with 300 Level pricing would still be available for every game.

So is this a good move for fans?

That depends on your perspective.

If your main concern is the product on the field, it's probably the smart thing for the Rays to do. Closing the upper deck saves money in the long run and lessens the dreary, mausoleum-like feel of the stadium.

Packing more fans in a smaller area should produce a more festive atmosphere, which is crucial to a stadium experience. And if the cost savings are redirected toward the payroll, that's a good thing, too.

But from a pure supply-and-demand standpoint, it's not a positive move. No customer wants fewer options. And artificially limiting the number of available tickets will, theoretically, lead to higher prices at some point.

"I understand what they're doing, and it makes sense in some ways,'' said Kay Schupay, a retired teacher from St. Petersburg who has bought flex packs in the 300 Level with friends. "I just hope they're not discounting the loyalty of older fans who have been following them for years.

"I guess I'm just irritated with people who don't go to games. In our classrooms, we used to say we were raising Rays fans as fast as we could. I guess there are just not enough yet.''

The view from Tropicana Field’s upper deck in Section 312 with Carlos and Donna Mendez in the foreground. The Rays are planning to close the upper deck for the 2019 season.Credit line: Photo courtesy Justin Pegg.
The view from Tropicana Field’s upper deck in Section 312 with Carlos and Donna Mendez in the foreground. The Rays are planning to close the upper deck for the 2019 season.Credit line: Photo courtesy Justin Pegg.

The Rays have been contemplating this move for a couple of years and decided to pull the trigger after hearing fan preferences during the planning process for the now-dormant Ybor City project.

The Ybor stadium would have had a capacity of less than 30,000 with a limited upper deck.

"If it's going to help the atmosphere, I guess this is a good opportunity,'' said St. Petersburg's Mike McGee, who has had a partial-season-ticket package in the 300 Level for at least a half-dozen years. "But I do feel some sadness because we've gotten so close to so many people around us. I probably wouldn't have renewed my seats if not for the camaraderie in our section.

"But now maybe we can meet some new people in a new section.''

Contact John Romano at [email protected]om. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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