The Rays are staying in St. Petersburg, for 600 million reasons

A stadium in St. Petersburg is unsustainable for the Rays, unless someone writes a check for $600 million, anyway.

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The whole saga of the Tampa Bay Rays has been something, hasn’t it? It feels like they’ve been trying to move out of the area they call home — or at least out of St. Petersburg, where they actually play their games — since they got there. To be fair, there are loads of problems with their current arrangement. Tropicana Field, as I’ve said many times in the past, reminds me of a rec center where I used to play indoor softball in the winter — that’s great for the rec center, less so for the Major League Baseball team that has to play in that setting. And St. Pete is considerably smaller than Tampa, with just under 260,000 residents compared to Tampa’s nearly 400,000.

Now, that might not seem like that big of a difference in population, especially since they’re the Tampa Bay Rays, and the metro area of Tampa Bay is over three million people, which puts it in the top 20 in the country. But that just brings us to the most significant problem: it flat-out sucks to get to St. Petersburg to watch a Rays game. It’s a long trip over one long bridge or another unless you’re already in St. Pete — the one time I went to a Rays’ game at the Trop, the cab from Tampa cost me $70, and that was nearly a decade ago now — you need to drive when rush-hour traffic is happening, and this is Florida, so we’re not talking walkable cities or one with fully featured subway systems, either. In case you’ve never been, look at this Google Maps rendering for a second, so you get a sense of things:

A Google Maps image of part of the Tampa Bay region, with a focus on the downtown area of the city of Tampa as well as St. Petersburg. Tropicana Field's location is marked on the map: a body of water connected by multiple bridges sits in between the two areas.

Let’s pick a spot at random from that map. Progress Village is a “census-designated place” just nine miles south of downtown Tampa. To get from Progress Village to Tropicana Field, which is over 30 miles away, takes 45 minutes when there isn’t any real traffic to speak of if you want to pay tolls, and closer to an hour if you want to skip the tolls but go through additional traffic. If you want to go a bit further out to a larger population center, Lakeland (115,000) is 57 miles away from the Trop, and it takes over an hour to get to the stadium from there even when the roads aren’t packed. That, again, is the faster route with tolls. And if you’re all the way in Orlando, well, that’s going to be closer to two hours with tolls.

It sucks so bad to get to the Trop in time for a game that owner Stuart Sternberg spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time trying to convince anyone who would listen that the way to save the Rays and keep them in St. Pete even part-time was to split their time with the city of Montreal. An absolutely ridiculous grift, the intention of which was to get someone to eventually blink and build the Rays a brand new stadium, but it goes to show you just how much the team felt they needed to be out of St. Petersburg, that they were begging to be there half as often as they currently are.

Now, granted, it’s always going to be a longer trip from Orlando even if you put the city in Tampa, but the point is just that St. Pete is completely out of the way of everything. It’s not set in the center of the region, but about as far west and south as you can go in it, which means a trip from Orlando takes two hours, whereas you could shave 40 minutes off the ride for a downtown stadium in Tampa. CDPs like Progress Village would be so much closer to games if a new park was built there. And yet, the Rays are staying put in St. Pete, basically next door to where the Trop is now, because the city (and county) have agreed to give them $600 million in public funds toward a new stadium. The Trop is a problem, yes, there’s no denying that, but the real issue with it is the location. And the location has now barely changed.

The top five Rays seasons by attendance all happened between 1998, when they first arrived as an expansion team, and 2010. Just one of their current top 10 occurred in the past 10 seasons: 2023 currently ranks 13th, behind the last-place 2006 squad. It used to matter when they were good, in the sense attendance was higher, but the correlation isn’t so strong these days: they drew just 1.18 million fans in 2019 when they finished in second place and made the postseason, 1.13 million last year when they did the same, and are at 1.35 million in 2023 en route to the postseason and a potential second place finish once again, while sitting just 2.5 games back of first. They’ve drawn over two million just once in their history, their inaugural season, and were over 1.8 million three times, from 2008 through 2010, when they were first good after a decade of being something of a joke.

Maybe there will be a brief uptick in attendance at first to see the new stadium, but will it be enough to stop what’s been a slide from glory days that weren’t all that glorious to begin with? That seems unlikely, because again, the new park is right next door to the old one, and location has been the problem this whole time. The new stadium is set to be smaller, with 30,000 seats, too, so even if they managed to sell out every game, we’re talking 2.43 million fans, or, fewer than showed up in 1998 for the Devil Rays’ first campaign.

Strange decisions all around, but made because St. Pete agreed to contribute $600 million (through currently unexplained means) toward a brand new ballpark. The current record is the $750 million that the NFL’s Raiders coaxed out of Las Vegas for Allegiant Stadium, and the A’s managed to convince the same place to hand them $380 million in public funds, so $600 million is significant even for this kind of thing. It’s a shame, for the sake of the fans, that if some city or another was going to spend all this money, that it couldn’t have at least been one that’s more convenient for the people who actually would like to go to games. But these kinds of decisions are always made independent of what fans could want or need, aren’t they? It’s just about who writes the checks, and for how much, and St. Pete was willing to hand over a large one.

Now, a vote does still have to go through, so nothing is set in stone yet: the Rays and St. Petersburg (as well as Pinellas County) have merely agreed to a deal to be voted upon. Not by the people of the region, mind you, but by the County Commission and City Council, which is unlikely to occur until early 2024. It feels inevitable, though, doesn’t it? No one has learned a lesson about anything in this realm for decades now, which is why these kinds of deals even come to be voted upon in the first place.

[Update: It’s actually $730 million, not $600 million in public funds, as pointed out by J.C. Bradbury.]

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