Who else in the Tampa Bay Area is sick of debating what the Tampa Bay Rays want to do with their stadium and where they’re going to move? By all major metrics, interest in baseball is on the decline in this country while interest in other sports like basketball and soccer have increased tremendously.
As we come out of the pandemic, the decade-old conversation is going to come back to life and could transform the landscape of the region. As much as I would love to have the Tampa Bay Rays move across the bridge and actually play in Tampa, or at the very least stay in downtown St. Pete, at this point I think the majority of Tampanians are indifferent if they walk away from the region completely.
It’s not like we’ve ever enjoyed driving across the bridge at 7 p.m. on a weekday to watch them anyway. The whole back and forth of the Rays’ negotiations is exhausting, and quite frankly I think it’s time to just let that be St. Petersburg’s headache entirely and point our collective efforts in Tampa to another sports league, the NBA.
We’re already in a strange love triangle with the city of Toronto and the Raptors, as they played all of their home games this season in Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa. They had great attendance numbers, given the NBA’s reduced capacity rules. Tampa sold out the stadium in the first home opener of a team that isn’t even theirs.
It was so much more appealing to drive to an existing stadium in downtown Tampa to watch the Raptors play any average team in the NBA than trekking across the bridge to Tropicana Field. As we know, Tampa’s population is expanding fast, and that is on top of already having one of the larger media markets in the country. There is no valid reason we couldn’t provide the same support to an NBA expansion team as the Stanley Cup Champion Lightning or Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers. It’s a travesty that we don’t already have an NBA team. And I don’t understand why there aren’t more politicians and business leaders pushing for one.
I know there will be some prominent developers and stakeholders unhappy that I’m saying this, but the best part about putting an NBA team in Amalie Arena is this: We wouldn’t have to build a stadium. Dozens of other cities already have multiple sports teams with timeshares in the same stadium, and Tampa has already done it over this past NBA regular season.
Even with the Lightning in the NHL playoffs, we have stadiums that can convert from hockey to basketball in roughly 90 minutes, making it conceivable to play two games on the same day as we see at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. All of the yearly economic benefit that comes from having a thriving NBA team could still be realized without having to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of rich team owners. Tampa is still scarred from the Raymond James Stadium deal. Miami is forever scarred by the Marlins Baseball Park. Taxpayers are not falling for this hustle again, and we’re in no position to fund any aspect of a stadium deal through public dollars coming out of a pandemic.
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The business community could come together and put forth the same effort it did with the The Rays 100 a few years ago. That initiative committed companies to buying a certain percentage of luxury boxes and tickets to Rays’ games, were they to move to Tampa. Do something like that, and the NBA would take notice that the interest and the money are there.
The people of Tampa deserve an NBA team, and everyone in the city should be an advocate, and the biggest advocate of acquiring an NBA team should be Mayor Jane Castor. The City of Tampa just released her two-year achievement video, and it’s pretty dismal.
With reelection not that distant, she should be doing everything to get a signature win under her belt before 2023. An NBA team might just do that. Tampa has all of the momentum and opportunity in the world right now, so why not make a big play for a region-altering sports franchise?
Jake Hoffman is president of Tampa Bay Young Republicans and CEO of Invasion Digital Media.