Some 15 years ago, Tampa Bay’s Major League Baseball franchise, then known as the Devil Rays, was still in the womb, a year away from playing its first game. Some 16 years from now, will the Rays be embarking on their final season of play in the Tampa Bay area?
“I think that’s a question they (the Rays) are asking. I’m not,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, the city that hosts Rays home games at Tropicana Field. “The Tampa Bay community can support three professional franchises, there’s no doubt about that.”
Yet they say the best marketing is winning, and despite making the playoffs three of the last four seasons, the Rays’ home attendance and local television ratings have dropped. There were even a significant amount of empty seats for Game 4 of the National League Division Series in 2011.
Could it be this market of 2.78 million is already stretched too thin with two other existing major professional sports franchises in the NFL’s Buccaneers and the NHL’s Lightning? Foster doesn’t think so. He argues that a sluggish economy coupled with the fact the Rays’ success has only come recently as reasons to be open-minded of the future.
Further complicating matters is the proverbial argument that “a new ballpark will cure all ills.” The Rays insist the franchise can’t survive much longer without a replacement for Tropicana Field, and that any new MLB facility built in the region would have to be outside St. Petersburg, the smaller of the two cities in the region.
The Mayor of Tampa, 15 or so miles to the other side of the Howard Frankland Bay Bridge, would like to speak with the Rays about building a new ballpark, but the team is prohibited from doing so, per the terms of its unique use agreement with the City of St. Petersburg that also stipulates the club play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season.
The Rays have asked the City of St. Petersburg for permission to explore ballpark options across the bay in Tampa, but it’s been refused. St. Petersburg has said it’s poised to fight in court if the team attempts to flee before its use agreement ends.
The Rays declined comment for this story.
The Rays argue that the club needs to be closer to its larger corporate fan base in Tampa and in a ballpark that’s also more convenient to reach, especially during the work week — and they’ve got a good point.
In 2010, a group of leaders in the region, known as the ABC Coalition, published a study that concluded that St. Petersburg’s location was a major reason why the team draws poorly, concluding that less than 20 percent of the region’s population lives within 30 miles of Tropicana Field.
Validating the study was the fact the Rays season ticket base from corporate sponsors is among the lowest in MLB. Typically, two-thirds of MLB season tickets are bought by corporations, but for the Rays, it’s only one-third. The region’s collective corporate presence already ranks in the bottom half of MLB markets, according to the study.
“The majority of corporate offices in the region are located outside of Pinellas County/St. Petersburg,” the report said, noting “the downtown St. Petersburg trade area has the lowest concentration of drive-time population and the Downtown Tampa trade area has the highest.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
One thing is certain: the Rays are unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon. For starters, there is only one market in the U.S. or Canada today without an MLB team that has a potentially-suitable facility, but it’s no lock either (see accompanying sidebar). Furthermore, there’s only one metropolitan market in the U.S. or Canada with at least three million residents that doesn't have a MLB team. That’s Montreal, former home of the Expos and Olympic Stadium, which was one of the reasons the club left for Washington, D.C. after the 2004 season.
In 1995, three years before its first game as a franchise, the Rays chose to sign a use agreement with the City of St. Petersburg to play MLB games at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, the only current MLB ballpark that is all-indoors, all the time. The Rays' agreement with the city is indeed rare, as it’s not a lease, but rather, a use agreement. The Rays don’t pay a single cent to play at Tropicana Field — they just have to play all their regular season home games there.
“The agreement states the Rays must play 81 games a year at the Trop through 2027,” emphasized Foster. “They can’t just say, ‘well, we’ll just pay maintenance on the building (for the length of the contract and leave).’ They really can’t opt out.”
In fact, the Rays had to request approval from the City of St. Petersburg just to play a three-game regular season series near Orlando at Champion Stadium during the 2007 and 2008 campaigns.
I asked multiple legal experts to review the use agreement between the City of St. Petersburg and the Rays. All agreed a court would find the Rays in breach of the agreement if they tried to leave Tropicana Field before the end of the 2027 season, including if the team were sold, declared bankruptcy or was contracted by MLB.
HBT: Carlos Ruiz was lifted from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Reds after straining his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the second inning.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.