If you’ve never visited the Tampa Bay Area and you know little about the market, you might be inclined to think that St. Petersburg is an excellent, central location to place a ballpark for the Rays. Tropicana Field is roughly 30 miles from the northern end of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and 30 miles from Sarasota, whose separate MSA (Bradenton-Sarasota) holds another 688,000 residents. All told that 3.6 million citizens in the eight-county group is often considered a better representation of the full market than what we usually read in the media or in studies. It’s roughly 120 miles north-to-south and 50 miles east-to-west, plus the bay to displace it. By comparison, the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area is around 150 miles north-to-south and 50-70 miles east-to-west, certainly larger in area by not appreciably given the diminishing rural population at the fringes. One key difference is that the SF Bay Area has twice the population, 7.2 million. And in its oft-criticized yet mostly functional public transportation system, the San Francisco Bay Area has a secret weapon that Tampa Bay doesn’t have, one that could really help fans get to a ballpark more easily. Even if only 20% of A’s fans make it to the Coliseum via BART, having that option removes some friction because there’s always the option not to drive.
Local pols in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are trying to put together a regional transit coalition that would widen some key bridges and construct a light rail system. Something like BART would be far too expensive in this era, which is a big reason why you see light rail being deployed in emerging metros and not electric third rail systems like BART. Even if they are successful, the place would have to become much more densely populated to properly support a major league team on a 2.5 million season attendance clip (30k/game). St. Petersburg is particularly not dense, with an area slightly 25% larger than the City of San Francisco and less than one-third SF’s population.
With so many numbers and issues swimming around in my head, I took some downtime while I was in the Tampa Bay area to properly drive around and get a feel for the market – as good as I could for several hours. I stayed a night near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport. The hotel was across the way from the Carillon business park, touted last year as a potential Rays ballpark site. The site was close to equidistant from downtown Tampa, St. Pete, and Clearwater, which should have made it convenient for about 2 million of the region’s population. Alas, the concept died, leaving Rays owner Stuart Sternberg still pining for Tampa and St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster shutting down any talks with the rival city.
Friday night I stayed in the Westshore area of Tampa near the airport. Westshore is at the eastern end of the Howard Frankland Bridge, the non-toll span of I-275 that carries the bulk of the traffic between Tampa and St. Pete. It’s where you can find Tampa International Airport and Raymond James Stadium. 5 miles west of downtown Tampa and Ybor City, it’s as close as you can get to being in St. Pete while actually being in Tampa. Around 5:30 I was trying to figure out what to do. The Rays were in Cleveland, and the only Florida State League team hosting a game was Dunedin, several miles north of Clearwater. A trip that normally would take 30 minutes was advertised as taking 50 minutes due to the rush hour commute, so I decided to pass. Pinellas County is notorious for having few freeways, making commutes in much of the peninsula much like crosstown commutes in San Francisco – slow and arduous. Thankfully, Cigar City Brewing was closeby so I could work on my beer appreciation.
Saturday morning I took the 20+ minute drive to Tropicana Field. Before I got there, I drove through a rather depressed neighborhood north of the stadium. Notable businesses nearby include a government health clinic, U-Haul truck center, and a strip mall with a check cashing shop and a dollar store. No event was being held at the Trop, but there were cars in the parking lot so I parked and went to the entrance to take a look.
Tropicana Field, formerly known as the Florida Suncoast Dome, was built without any specific guidance by a MLB team, and it shows. It opened at the end of the static dome era, a year after SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) dazzled fans with its moving roof and other technology. It has a moat around the outfield exterior and a rotunda that was added to resemble that of Ebbets Field. Sadly the rotunda looks more like a library foyer than the inspiration. It’s the main entrance to the stadium, as most of the parking is on the east side of the Trop. I couldn’t go any further than this, which is unfortunate as I would’ve like to take some new pictures of the main concourse, which reminds me of an 80’s mall arcade without the carpet.
Inside, Sternberg has done about as much as he could to put lipstick on this pig. There’s lots of color everywhere. Party boxes were placed down each foul line to cut into the foul territory. Astroturf was replaced by more grass-like Astroturf, which somehow looks worse on TV than the old stuff due to its weird sheen. Tarps were placed in the upper nosebleeds to reduce capacity, and like the A’s it hasn’t helped attendance. Little has worked. The atmosphere is still dreary, the catwalks still strange and frustrating. Sternberg wants out and he has reason to want out, but the alternatives are not cheap or easy. No city is going to build the Rays a ballpark for free, including cities outside the market. The team is stuck at the Trop until 2027 unless Sternberg chooses an expensive buyout after 2017. Plans to turn the Trop into a redevelopment zone have gone nowhere. The Rays are in an arguably worse position than the A’s stadium-wise, since the Rays are bound by the lease and Sternberg can’t formally speak to Tampa about new digs.
Worse, it’s easy to get the sense that as far as baseball goes, the Rays have to fight just to be recognized in the region. Despite their recent World Series appearance and multiple playoff appearances, the team has to compete with 4 Florida State League teams in the market, and the Yankees, who have a radio affiliate and their spring training facility in Tampa. Plus there are all those other Grapefruit League teams quenching any early baseball thirst in March. Maybe the Rays would have a better chance if there wasn’t as much competition. A new ballpark could help as long as the franchise wasn’t saddled with debt. No wonder then, that Bud Selig hasn’t exactly pushed hard on this one. That M.O. sounds familiar…