Where big dreams meet small paychecks
This is the one thing the lords of baseball never understood.
When they were looking for new markets in the 1980s and 90s, all they saw when they looked at Tampa Bay was a large population base and a century-long love affair with spring training.
They failed to consider the area’s meager economics.
There were too many retirees, too many service industry jobs and not enough corporations with high-salaried employees. The demographics have improved in recent years, but not nearly enough.
This has been a double whammy for the Rays.
The lack of corporations means less sponsorships and season ticket packages than most comparable Major League markets. The proposed Ybor City stadium essentially died because there were not enough financial commitments from corporations to make the deal attractive to the Rays.
All of which means the team is literally selling tickets to fans one at a time. And Tampa Bay residents do not have the discretionary income to sustain that model.
Based on Bureau of Labor statistics, Tampa Bay is 29th among MLB markets in median wages. The only one worse is Miami. Not so coincidentally, they are the bottom two markets in attendance.
The $%&#@ traffic
Once asked what he had learned about Tampa Bay that he did not realize before he bought the team, owner Stu Sternberg deadpanned:
“That water is a big divide.’’
Many of the complaints about driving to Tropicana Field are overblown. You live in a metropolitan area, you’re going to have traffic. If you think people don’t struggle to drive or park in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston or Los Angeles, you’re kidding yourself.
But there are two factors that work against Tampa Bay:
A complete lack of mass transit and a population base that is spread out among multiple counties with bridges in between.
There are stories of Boston fans visiting the graves of parents and grandparents when the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of heartache.
Nothing in Tampa Bay can compare to that devotion.
You don’t just open a stadium’s gates and find loyalty. That can only be earned through shared memories, both glorious and painful. A team survives hard times because a fan base has grown from generation to generation. Tampa Bay is still a long way from there.
The wrong city
No matter what the Rays decide this summer when it comes to St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman’s offer to talk about a new stadium, it is clear ownership does not have much faith in the current location.
There is no guarantee that downtown Tampa would be a better site, but 20 years of evidence suggests that St. Pete has its challenges as a home for Major League Baseball.
The lack of multiple corporations in St. Pete, and a location miles away from the wealthiest zip codes in Tampa Bay suggest critics of the current stadium site have a legitimate point.
A 2010 report studying stadium sites concluded that downtown Tampa, the West Shore area and the Gateway area were the only sites that had the adequate population density, business activity and reasonable drive times to support a team.
The inference was that building in downtown St. Pete had been a mistake.
A destination spot
Many of the inherent flaws in Tampa Bay as a market could be covered up by a stadium that was a destination point.
Tropicana Field is not that stadium.
While there is nothing drastically wrong with the Trop, there is also nothing about this stadium to entice casual baseball fans.
It’s not in an iconic spot on the water, such as San Francisco. It wasn’t created as part of a mixed-use development site with bars and restaurants, such as Atlanta. It has none of the cool vibes that helped revitalize neighborhoods in Baltimore, Denver and San Diego.
It’s an air-conditioned, baseball warehouse.
Contact John Romano at email@example.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.