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Baseball commissioner: Rays stadium is about location, location, location

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Another year has almost passed and, so far as we know, nothing much has happened to lead anyone to believe the Tampa Bay Rays are anywhere close to securing a new stadium. But there were two developments this week that seemed to be forces pulling in the opposite direction. That’s never good.

On Monday, as the Tampa Bay Times reported, baseball Commissioner Ron Manfred told reporters that the No. 1 priority for a stadium is location, location, location.

“I think getting, not only a new facility, but a facility that is more appropriately located within the Tampa-St. Pete market would be good,” he said at a Q-and-A session at George Washington University.

In case we didn’t get the message, Manfred added this: “Ultimately, there has to be an end game. If in fact, there’s not a site or there’s not a financial arrangement that’s viable and we become convinced of that, our rules allow for the possibility of relocation. At that point of desperation, it’s possible a team would be allowed to relocate.”

The “end game” got an interesting twist a day later when state Rep. Brian Avila, a Hialeah Republican, filed HB-77. Boiled to its essence, the measure would outlaw pro sports teams from leasing government-owned land to build or renovate a stadium.

A couple of points about all this:

Manfred is correct on his point about the requirement that a new stadium be “appropriately located” in the Tampa Bay market. Right now, it doesn’t look like they’re close.

There has been a lot of chatter about building a new ballpark adjacent to Tropicana Field, but that would just double-down on the original disastrous decision that stuck the Rays in the extreme western part of the marketplace.

The only places that make sense for the long term are downtown Tampa, the Westshore area in Tampa, or a spot in Pinellas off the Howard Frankland Bridge. The Rays have to be in the center of the market. Anything else is a waste of time and money.

The question of money brings us to the second point: How to pay for this.

I’ll conservatively put the cost at $600 million (although I believe it will be higher than that). The Rays will be expected to pony up a large chunk of that cost — perhaps through ticket surcharges and other fees. To do that, they’ll need a large season-ticket base, which in baseball means corporate sales.

Already, businesses in Hillsborough are reluctant to buy Rays’ tickets in mass quantities because clients and employees won’t make weeknight trips through the area’s stifling traffic at rush hour to get to the Trop.

For the sake of argument, let’s say they work out the location requirement and ticket sales spike. That bar is pretty low, by the way. The Rays attracted a little less than 1.3 million fans last year, by far the lowest in baseball.

Based on 2016 attendance figures, Tampa Bay would need an additional 1 million fans per season to be in the middle of the pack (San Diego, at No. 15, drew 2.3 million). That’s a jump of about 14,000 extra fans per game.

Before they can focus on that, though, the question for politicians becomes how to subsidize the stadium cost without having taxpayers storm their offices with pitchforks and flaming torches. We’ve all heard things like dedicating some tourist tax and rental car money, but I’m not even sure that’s feasible. Those industries have potent lobbyists who will be shouting in the ears of people like Brian Avila to keep MLB’s mitts off their money.

This issue has been dragging on for years and the Rays seem stuck in quicksand as a franchise. The way to change that is to heed Manfred’s words about location and stop with the nonsense of shoveling more money into a failed spot.

Nothing else can happen until they move past that.

Then, all they need to do is find a way to pay for it.

Then actually build it.

Then figure a way to put a competitive team in that new building.

To be continued …

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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