The Tampa Bay Rays open their 22nd season at Tropicana Field Thursday afternoon with new faces on the field, new offerings for fans in the stadium and new optimism about making the playoffs. Off the field, the situation is not as rosy. Prospects for building a modern stadium to secure the franchise's long-term future in the region are cloudier than ever, and time is growing short. Which elected officials and community leaders are going to step up to the plate to make this a priority, and when are the Rays going to make their intentions clear?
A year ago, there was every reason to be hopeful that everything would be in place by now. The Rays had selected a promising site in Ybor City for a new stadium, reflecting their longtime preference to be in Tampa rather than St. Petersburg and closer to the region's population center. The land was secured, and the stadium would be modern yet fit in well with a long-established community. The price tag approached $900 million, but it appeared possible to put the money together with innovative financing and a significant contribution from the Rays.
But there would be no stadium present under the Christmas tree. Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg concluded in December that too little progress had been made to justify seeking an extension of the three-year window to look for a new stadium site outside St. Petersburg. The window is closed, and the Rays are re-examining the Tropicana Field site that team officials contended for years is not centrally located enough to attract enough fans and corporate support from throughout the region. While some private conversations are occurring between the Rays and officials from Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, any new stadium plan appears to be months away.
It is not unusual for plans for new stadiums to fall apart more than once and then come together. This time, there is reason to be more concerned. The Rays ranked next to last in attendance last year, and today's home opener was not sold out as of Wednesday afternoon even though the upper deck will be closed this season. The team's lease to play in Tropicana Field expires at the end of 2027, and every season that goes by with no stadium deal increases the Rays' leverage and the possibility that Tampa Bay could lose Major League Baseball.
Keeping the region in the big leagues is going to require greater effort from elected officials, the community and the Rays. The stadium issue is not among the top priorities in the Tampa mayor's race, and no Hillsborough County commissioners have been particularly engaged besides Ken Hagan. In Pinellas County, no county commissioner has taken the lead. St. Petersburg City Council chairman Charlie Gerdes is throwing out the first pitch today, but he will be term-limited out of office in November. By then, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will be roughly half-way through his second term and the focus will start turning to his potential successors. Kriseman performed a public service by pushing through the agreement to let the Rays look for a stadium site in Hillsborough County for three years, but he has been waiting for the Rays to make the next move and will need plenty of help to get a stadium deal done on the Trop site. Which public officials are going to step up?
The voluntary effort by the Rays 2020 group was modestly successful in recruiting more pledges for business support during the effort for the Ybor City site. But they were a long way from converting that support into hard dollars. Which business leaders are going to step up?
Sternberg also has to be more direct about his commitment to keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay. The Rays have to contribute significantly more money toward a new stadium than they have offered publicly and recognize the political reality that taxpayers are skeptical about paying for most of the cost. When is Sternberg going to step up?