ST. PETERSBURG — Everything the Rays say about their planned new stadium in downtown St. Petersburg most likely won’t come true.
As with other new sports facilities, especially with a significant public funding component, there will be projections, predictions and promises of economic growth, job creation and tourism increases. Supporters will tout the numbers, critics will trash them and time, ultimately, will tell.
But 16 years after they started the process of finding a new home, and a few days since announcing an agreement with St. Petersburg and Pinellas County to share the cost of the approximate $1.3 billion project that will open in 2028 as part of the redevelopment of the 86-acre Historic Gas Plant District, the Rays say they are certain of one clear benefit:
They will have more money to make the team better.
“Building and having a new ballpark in a surrounding development that we think is going to significantly increase attendance obviously comes with more revenues,” team president Brian Auld said.
“And those revenues, as pretty much all revenues we use within the organization, will go towards trying to put the best team we possibly can on the field.
“Some of that goes into research and development. Some of that goes into front office personnel. Some of it goes into staffing. But a whole lot of it winds up playing on the field in the form of payroll. And we certainly would expect that to be the case here, too.”
Having routinely had payrolls in the $70 million range that rank in the bottom five of the 30 big-league clubs, the Rays aren’t committing yet on how much their payroll will rise once they move into the new facility.
But Auld said if all goes as expected they’d have “the ability to fund a materially higher payroll on the field for the entire lifespan of the facility.”
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said there is “no way of knowing” yet how their business model could change, and noted the significant amount of money the team is paying toward the stadium — an estimated $700 million, plus being responsible for any cost overruns (with the city and county splitting the other $600 million).
But he said the increased revenue stream “should” not only lead to higher payrolls — “That’s a big part of the equation” — but could even potentially change their standing as a team that receives hefty revenue-sharing payments from larger-market clubs, noting how the Padres made the “very rare” switch from recipient to payor.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“You never know, you never say never, but it’s our expectation, and (Major League) Baseball’s expectation, we’re going to remain on that side of the house,” Sternberg said.
“But with a new park if the support is there and the area continues to grow with sponsorships and season tickets and things, I could close my eyes and envision a time where we’re not on the payee side.”
The most obvious source of additional revenues will be an increase in attendance, which has also typically ranked in the bottom five annually despite the onfield success, though is up about 25% this season, averaging 17,660 through Friday.
The Rays expect more people to come for a series of specific reasons:
• The state-of-the-art amenities in the new 30,000-seat stadium they say will be the “best ballpark in America,” including windows, operable walls, creative seating options and, Auld said, “a cooler rays tank and a bunch of things that make kids go ‘Wow.’ ”
• The enhanced game-day experience created by the surrounding development of bars, restaurants, shops, a music hall and other public spaces.
• The continuing growth of downtown St. Petersburg, which is in the midst of a building boom that will be further enhanced by the Rays/Hines Co. development around the stadium; as well as the overall greater Tampa Bay region, coupled with some slight improvements to transportation, such as an expanded Howard Frankland Bridge.
• An increase in corporate support in terms of sponsorship and sales of suites and/or premium seating areas.
Since announcing the agreement — which is pending votes by the city council and county commission likely in early 2024 — at a festive Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Auld said the Rays have gotten promising initial reaction from people now ready to commit, or to increase their level of spending.
“We’re already getting pretty, pretty solid early oral feedback to that front,” Auld said. “And I think that we’re going to spend the next couple years in anticipation of a chance to take a big leap forward in 2028.”
The Rays are also banking on some fans, and companies, making an emotional investment, knowing that the building of the new stadium and the signing of a 30-year lease, with an option for 10 more, will bring an end to the speculation of relocation and any uncertainty of whether the team will be here.
“We’ve been saying forever that we don’t want to leave Tampa Bay, that it’s our home, it’s where we want to be,” Auld said. “Now that we have this plan, when there’s a shovel in the ground that commitment is going to be a lot more real, I think, for a lot of our stakeholders and our business partners.”
And also for the growing generational fan base — the kids who grew up fans of the new team in the late 1990s and 2000s that now have families of their own — that the Rays consider a key to their future success.
“It’s hard to know exactly how important that will be, but I don’t think you can overestimate that,” Auld said. “When we look around at what places with generational fan bases are able to do relative to our market, it’s a lot better and I think that’s coming for us.
“I think putting in the rearview mirror could this team leave town and instead having every kid who’s here know that this team is going to be here for the long haul, it’s going to really help us put butts in seats.”
There also could be a benefit in putting players in the home clubhouse.
In having a higher payroll and a showy stadium with top-notch training facilities and amenities, the Rays also may be able to attract a new class of players on the free-agent market.
“Oh yeah, 100%,” said pitcher Zach Eflin, the Orlando-area native who grew up a Rays fan and signed a three-year, $40 million deal with them this past offseason. “I think it’s definitely going to increase the chances to get more players and to get more fans and really just continue to build up the community.”
There will be other revenue streams as well, starting with millions annually for naming rights to the new stadium, a jersey patch they have yet to find a sponsor for, whatever share of the adjacent development they get, and what they hope to be a heavy schedule of events on non-game days such as concerts (with a 30,000-35,000 weather-protected capacity they feels positions them perfectly between Amalie Arena and Raymond James Stadium), festivals, other sporting events and more.
Longtime major-league executive Rob Matwick, who worked on new stadium projects for the Astros and more recently the Rangers, said the combination of a new stadium, adjacent development, non-baseball events — and a contending team — is currently the winning combination.
“It’s all angles,” Matwick said. “And it’s really working well together.”
Auld said that is definitely part of the Rays’ plan.
“This being the first new professional sports facility in Tampa Bay in over 30 years, it’s going to come with a lot of excitement,” Auld said. “We expect the business community, our fans and lots of folks who may not currently have season tickets or who may not own suites to want to be there for that first year.
“And we’re confident that we’re going to be able to keep them for years to come after that, so that we’re not looking at a one- or two-year blip.”
• • •
Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.