Team executives from the Tampa Bay Rays were in Tampa twice last week — once to show support for the future of women’s professional soccer and the new Tampa Bay team that will start playing in 2024.
A day earlier, the Rays met with Tampa Sports Authority, city of Tampa and Hillsborough County government officials to talk about their own future and the potential for the team to play in a new baseball stadium in Tampa.
Developer Darryl Shaw, owner and the managing partner of the new, women’s soccer franchise in the United Soccer League (USL) Super League, said he’d like to see that team play in Ybor City. He’s already planning Ybor Harbour, a massive redevelopment project, there and it’s “where my heart is.”
Shaw also owns land that is being studied as a possible baseball stadium site north of the Ybor Channel, on a spot that may very well be where the Rays’ heart is. The team and Major League Baseball continue to look at Tampa even as they negotiate to redevelop Tropicana Field as the Historic Gas Plant District in St. Petersburg.
The soccer announcement — and Shaw’s stated desire to build his team a stadium— is the latest wrinkle to the Ray’s own 15-year campaign to find a new home in Tampa Bay. But bigger ones await, particularly if the team continues to insist that Tampa remain in the conversation.
Tampa Bay’s other major league pro sports franchises, football’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and hockey’s Tampa Bay Lightning, are each closing in on three decades in their own homes. Both publicly owned facilities in Tampa, Raymond James Stadium and Amalie Arena, are likely in need of refurbishing, or at least will spark a conversation about it.
The tax that paid for Raymond James Stadium, the half-cent sales tax known as the Community Investment Tax, expires in 2026. Public talk of asking voters — who most recently rejected a separate sales tax for transportation — to renew the community investment tax is in the early stages.
Whether proposed sports facilities are part of an eventual project list remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is soccer and talk of where that team would play short- and long-term.
Shaw said last week his immediate need is a temporary playing field for the soccer team with seating for 5,000 and a facility that could be used for three to five years before a permanent home is completed.
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Shaw’s dual roles also raised a question of whether the Rays and professional women’s soccer could coexist in the historic district. Or could Shaw’s ownership of the soccer team override his potential to be a landlord to a baseball team?
“No, not at all. We’ve got a really good relationship with the Rays,” Shaw told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re looking now, truly, at a temporary solution. The Rays will figure out their solution well before we even start looking for a permanent (soccer) stadium.”
The Rays offered a similar sentiment.
“I can’t imagine it contributing in any negative way to the future of the Rays,” said team president Brian Auld.
A role for USF?
The day before the United Soccer League news conference, Major League Soccer announced an expansion franchise in San Diego would play at San Diego State’s on-campus football stadium, where a National Women’s Soccer League team also plays.
Does that mean the proposed $340 million on-campus stadium at the University of South Florida could play a role in the soccer equation?
“That’s a good question,” said Shaw.
“But, I have not given, literally, any thought to a permanent solution. We’re focusing right now on the temporary solution.”
The Rays, which own the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the United Soccer League, and the new women’s team also could “undoubtedly be partners in some way,” said Auld. “Including both teams being housed, potentially, in the same facility.”
The Rowdies currently play in 46-year-old Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg.
“The Rays and the Rowdies are both looking for their permanent homes,” said Auld.
A new complication in the stadium talks came this past Sunday when The Athletic reported the Rays received inquiries from prospective ownership groups, including interest from Tampa businessperson Dan Doyle Jr. In response, the Rays issued a statement from owner Stuart Sternberg, who said: “I expect we will build a ballpark in Tampa Bay that will keep the Rays here for generations to come. I also plan on remaining the Rays owner.”
Meanwhile, the Rays and development partner Hines and St. Petersburg remain deep in negotiations about the future of the Tropicana Field redevelopment. The city has elected to not share any of the details regarding the redevelopment with the public until a term sheet comes before the City Council, which is expected to happen this summer.
The Rays have said they expect an answer to their baseball stadium conundrum by the end of the year. The answer to the future of other professional sports facilities in the Tampa region won’t be concluded in the same time frame.
Community Investment Tax
In 1995, Hillsborough voters rejected two separate tax proposals to build schools and to pay for a new jail and other public safety projects.
But just one year later, by a 53%-47% margin, voters approved a new half-cent sales tax for schools, transportation, parks, public safety and other public infrastructure. The project list included one notable addition from 1995 — a new football stadium as the home field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Through 2020, that half-cent sales tax in Hillsborough County generated $575 million for transportation, $500 million for schools, $260 million for parks and $73 million for fire stations and equipment in Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. It also paid for an expanded county jail, drainage, a half-dozen libraries and other projects.
But what everyone seems to remember most is the $168 million, or less than 12% of the tax proceeds, earmarked to build Raymond James Stadium.
The 30-year tax expires in 2026 and county officials are now talking about potential renewal, perhaps in a 2024 referendum. Commission Chairperson Ken Hagan has asked the county to develop an assessment of the county’s unmet capital needs. He’s also suggested, if voters renew the tax, that it could help pay for a multipurpose gymnasium or baseball/softball complex to boost sports tourism.
So, would a new version of the community investment tax also include professional sports facilities?
Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998. Amalie Arena, initially called the Ice Palace, was not part of the community investment tax. It debuted in 1996. Both are owned by Hillsborough County.
“I think its premature” to talk about sports facilities, said Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise. “We do know the stadium is going to be 30 years old. We know Amalie Arena is aging. It’s the existing facilities we would focus on.”
For a football comparison, consider the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills, both of whom will be getting new stadiums. Tennessee’s Nissan Stadium in Nashville opened in 1999 — a year after Raymond James Stadium. It will be replaced by a $2.1 billion complex that includes $500 million from the state and a $760 million bond paid off with fees and taxes that include an increased hotel bed tax. The team is on the hook for $840 million.
The stadium shelf life is significantly longer in Buffalo, where the state of New York will own a new $1.54 billion football stadium. The state is contributing $600 million toward construction. The team is paying $550 million and the government of Erie County is kicking in $250 million. It will replace Highmark Stadium, which opened as Rich Stadium 50 years ago, when the Bills’ running back was O.J. Simpson.
Don’t expect similar financing in Florida, where Tallahassee frowns upon professional sports team subsidies.
Hagan, the commission chairperson and a member of the Tampa Sports Authority board of directors, offered a frank assessment.
“There will be no consideration of a new stadium for football,” Hagan said. “”Any discussions regarding the future of Raymond James renovations will only occur as a result of a long-term agreement that guarantees the Bucs remain here for generations to come.”
The Bucs said that discussion hasn’t started yet.
“There have been no conversations to this point regarding the end of our lease agreement with the Tampa Sports Authority, but we look forward to those discussions and finding new ways to grow the mutually beneficial partnership which has evolved over the past two decades,” Chief Operating Officer Brian Ford said in a statement.
The team noted it has previously contributed more than $130 million toward stadium renovations.
Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.