Since their unexpected run to the World Series in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays have been desperately looking to move into a more suitable ballpark for the future. Tropicana Field, initially built to lure an existing Major League franchise, became woefully outdated over the years, thanks to the arrival of the stadium construction boom taking place over the past two decades. The Rays are currently mired in a lease that runs through 2027, which limits many relocation options. Last week the team struck down a St. Petersburg city council proposal to negotiate a buyout to leave the area by the end of the 2020 season, potentially impacting the future of the franchise.
It is public knowledge around baseball that Tropicana Field is a venue which serves little constructive purpose beyond housing a major league franchise. Plagued with poor attendance and a drab atmosphere, the ballpark has an empty feel and lacks the state of the art amenities seen across the sport’s newest facilities. Catwalks, designed to keep the permanently-structured dome in place, become easy targets for hitters and routinely challenge the stadium ground rules. To add insult to injury, “The Trop,” located 22.6 miles from downtown Tampa, does not have any public transportation options to St. Petersburg. Since assuming full ownership from Vince Naimoli after the 2005 season, Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg made several changes to improve the in-stadium experience. In the last decade the Rays underwent a subtle $35 million renovation, adding new LED boards, field turf, and a fish tank containing actual devil rays in center field.
To further improve the atmosphere inside Tropicana Field, the club unveiled an innovative walkway across the ballpark called “Rays 360” in 2014, allowing fans to walk around the stadium and sample its offerings. Despite these fan friendly measures and an improving on field product, attendance remained the lowest in baseball. With little available real estate to add to the ballpark, the Rays must cut payroll on a yearly basis to compensate for their financial limitations. Though team executives have become adept at adjusting to their unique budget, operating the franchise in its current state long-term is no longer a workable option. As stated earlier the terms of the current stadium lease force the Rays to play in Tropicana Field through 2027 and are forbidden from pursuing a new ballpark since any violation would result in “irreparable harm and damages” to St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay Times).
Without a new ballpark the Rays will struggle to keep a modest budget in the growing economics of the game and could be forced to pursue relocation to a city such as Charlotte or Montreal. As the Rays are in the midst of an ironclad lease with St. Petersburg, a buyout could be the only method to free the club from their obligations. The St. Petersburg city council appears willing to appease the Rays and offered the club a $33 million buyout on October 23. The plan approved by council member Jim Kennedy would require the Rays to pay $4 million annually through 2027 and allow them to move to nearby Hillsborough or Pinellas County after the 2020. The Rays rejected the proposal based on high expenses but continue to negotiate with St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriesman, who along with Sternberg intends to keep the team in the area and avoid the first relocation in the four major sports since the Seattle Supersonics in 2008. Local elections for city council on Tuesday may also play a role in the stadium debate if opponents of the deal become ousted from political power.