We’re excited that Tampa Bay Rays pitchers and catchers will report to their ballpark in a couple of weeks for the “soft opening” of the 2013 baseball season. Once again, prospects for a winning season are promising. The same can’t be said, though, about the long-term prognosis for the Rays in St. Petersburg, where the Rays have struggled with declining attendance in recent years despite fielding an exciting, competitive team.
The main problem is Tropicana Field, home to the Rays since 1998. The outdated dome is situated toward the south side of St. Pete, which makes it more convenient to fans from the southern part of the region but much less so for the population base in Tampa. Without a new centrally located, modern-style stadium, owners say they may have to leave.
Another idle threat by get-richer-and-quicker baseball magnates? That’s unfair. The Sternberg family has been good for the team and a model of progressive team ownership. They have pumped more than $20 million into Tropicana Field,
But the business numbers are sad. Last year, the Rays were last among the 30 Major League teams in attendance, despite a good season on the field. They averaged 19,255 fans per game, which is pathetic compared to the league average of 30,895, and doubly pathetic considering Major League Baseball enjoyed its fifth-best all-time attendance.
Total attendance in St. Pete was 1.6 million. The Phillies led the Majors Leagues with 3.565 million; the Yankees were only 23,000 behind. Texas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Boston and Detroit each topped 3 million, about twice the Rays.
Something has to change. Making a pitch for a new stadium in Hillsborough County recently, team managing partner Stuart Sternberg said only 300 season-ticket holders came from St. Pete, in Pinellas County. Only 600,000 people live 30 minutes from Tropicana Field; downtown Tampa has 1.6 million within a 30-minute drive, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Sternberg also said Major League Baseball didn’t “believe” in the region anymore, and the league followed up with a statement that said, “The status quo is simply not sustainable.”
We want Major League Baseball to thrive in Florida. It’s been obvious for years that to do so they’ll need a new stadium closer to the Hillsborough County population base.
To become sustainable with a new stadium they’ll have to overcome a restrictive contract and unfavorable local politics. The Tropicana Field contract runs through 2027, but stadium-financing bonds held by St. Petersburg and Pinellas expire in three years.
From our position, we can only hope the cities and counties of Pinellas and Hillsborough can finally find a way to allow the team to move from the Trop. The stalemate threatens the long-term viability of Major League Baseball in Florida in this part of Florida.