Stadium Relocation—More Evidence For Tampa… Sorry Bill

Ed note: We thought this fanpost deserved front page access. Some known information, but also some new points.

When Bill Foster digs in his heels in St. Petersburg with the Rays, he’s asking for trouble. What we’ve got here is a train wreck coming, and the engineer in the locomotive won’t put on the breaks before it jumps the tracks. Foster is saying it’s got to be a new stadium in St. Pete or nothing. Well, then it will be nothing, because the reality is that St. Pete is not the future in the Tampa Bay area. That’s obvious to every sane person, probably even to the mayor, but viewed through his narrow political lens of short-term economics (and thus re-election), you can almost understand where he’s coming from.

Look, he’s got a big card to play—the lease through 2027. That’s worth something.  The Rays have a big card too—the threat to leave. That’s also worth something.

What is in everyone’s interest is that they stay within the greater Tampa Bay area. St. Pete’s political leaders know this, of course, but want to make sure the city’s long-term economic interests are not adversely affected. Fair enough—they made a good deal on the Trop, and they want to protect it. It seems apparent that the solution is somewhere along the lines of building the stadium in Tampa, and from that increased revenue stream, share the wealth with St. Pete in some fashion. Again, obvious, and the devil’s in the details, but that needs to happen. Otherwise, there’s no revenue stream for St. Pete or anyone else lease after the Rays are gone.

But everyone already knows that.

Is there more evidence than we already have? Do we need more?

I’m an urban planner by vocation (baseball nut by avocation), and because I don’t like to do things that aren’t fun, I wrote my master’s thesis on whether it makes sense for cities to try to retain their sports franchises or steal them from someone else. No surprises in the findings there. It’s a mixed bag, as you know. It all depends on the kinds of partnerships you can build between the public and private sectors, but it can work. Or it can fail. 

 And you cannot underestimate the social and intangible benefits of a franchise, especially in smaller to midsize markets, where they can become a greater fabric of the community, though these are difficult to quantify, which makes them so problematic. (One study, however, tried to do so by adding up the time spent during TV broadcasts of games talking about, or showing scenes of, the local community, skyline, etc. It worked out to be about 2 minutes per game, which he then translated into money by assuming prevailing rates for advertising time. Interesting.)

Some have argued that the TB area cannot support baseball. My research suggests otherwise.

It all starts with market size, and the most meaningful way to look at that term for baseball stadium location purposes is through the concept of the "commute-shed". If we think of anything within a one-hour commute to the ballpark as the "greater attendance market", then the market size changes depending on the location of the stadium, not the boundaries of the region as defined by the US Census or politicians or A.C. Nielsen. But the real core of the market is anything within a 30-minute commute (including walking and transit), which is where the baseball teams draw the vast majority of their fans. That’s what I want to focus on.

By that measure, the location of Tropicana Field makes the TB area the smallest market in baseball. By far. Most 30-minute markets range from 1.4 million to 3 million people. Only Dodger Stadium and the parks in Chicago and New York exceed this. In the case of New York, the 30-minute commute market is about 8 million.

But there are only 667,000 people within a 30-minute walk or drive to the Trop. Put that in perspective—the next smallest 30-minute commute-shed is that surrounding PNC Park in Pittsburgh. But at nearly 1.2 million people, it’s nearly twice the size of the population that surrounds the Trop!!  It’s hard to overcome such a handicap and be competitive. Throw in some geographic difficulties like the bridges, and you’re begging to fail. Don’t blame the fans of the St. Pete commute-shed—the ones that are there are big fans—there’s just not enough people to draw from.

(As an aside, there are 65,000 living within walking distance—a half mile—of Yankee Stadium! No one else is close—though about 20,000 live within a half-mile of both Fenway and Wrigley. Tropicana is at the lower end—but not the lowest—at about 1,600.)

The good news is that it’s possible to level the playing field somewhat. More than any other location in the country, moving the stadium from Tropicana will radically increase the commute-shed, thus de facto market size. Move the stadium to Tampa, and suddenly, the 30-minute commute is about 1.1 million! About 55% more than it is now. Still the smallest in baseball, but at least more competitive. Other cities with stadiums with less than 1.5 million people within 30 minutes include Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cleveland, San Diego, Baltimore, Seattle, and Phoenix (believe it or not). Mostly small markets, yes, but at least you’re in that group, not below it.

Notably, of all the new stadiums, the ones that improved their commute-shed base most dramatically with new stadium locations have been Milwaukee (50%), San Francisco (43%), Seattle (32%), Pittsburgh (23%), and Houston (17%). All others have been less than 10%, or in the case of San Diego, a 30% drop! (Jack Murphy had excellent freeway access to the suburbs of the region, whereas Petco draws from a smaller, lower income base. In Tampa Bay, a move to Tampa would increase the 30-minute fan base by 55%--more than any other city.

Now granted, there’s no guarantee that a larger population base within the commute-shed will guarantee larger crowds. You can see that from the data—there’s no direct correlation, because there’s so many other factors that come into play. Here’s just a few:

  • How well the team does on the field
  • Public perception of how well it is anticipated to do next year (a function of past performance, star players, and team payroll)
  • The team’s historic traditions (how well it is established in the community, and in the mind frame of the fans)
  • Competition from other activities in the area,
  • Marketing savvy of ownership (including ticket prices and promotion)
  • Stadium amenities and novelty factor (the food, how new the stadium is, in-park activities, how kid-friendly,…tradition…is it an attraction in itself)
  • Weather and climate
  • Median income of the commute-shed fan base
  • Median age of the commute-shed base
  • Job growth potential of the area
  • Neighborhood quality of the stadium location (crime rate, good restaurants, shops, etc…is the area an attraction in itself

…. And so on.

Fan Psychology. So there’s a lot of factors to consider, and that makes it hard to create a model for predicting attendance. But even if you could, you would likely find there would still be differences from city to city. And this, I believe, has to do with regional differences in fan psychology. As many have suggested, some areas just seem to produce more hardcore baseball fans, per capita. Ultimately, if you could correct for all the above factors, including market size, you would be left with this elusive but crucial piece of data. And that is ultimately what I intend to figure out. Who really has the best baseball fans? Are there truly regional differences in fan quality, loyalty, and therefore, their proclivity to attend games?

I would argue, for the sake of simplicity, that if attendance remains high and unchanged in spite of what happens on the field (all factors otherwise being equal), that you’ve got "high quality" fans, loyal no matter what. This is something like St. Louis or Chicago (Cubs, not Sox). But if attendance remains low and unchanged over the years, the fans are generally less interested (fewer fanatics). That’s a different kind of fan. This is something like what we are seeing in Tampa Bay. Or is it? Is it really just a function of stadium location?

On the other hand, if you’ve got a strong correlation between team expectations and fan attendance (such as in New York or Atlanta, historically—look how attendance dips in years where the teams do poorly—which has been a while for the Yanks), you’re dealing with a different kind of fan psychology. And these factors are crucial in any question of team relocation or stadium location within a city, as well as payroll, promotion, and so on.

Effects of New Stadiums on Attendance. What’s also interesting is that with all the recent new stadiums (since 1992), we’ve got enough data to see the extent to which attendance has really improved since they have been built. In general, the pattern is that it does at first, but then—and this may be surprising—attendance eventually reverts back to whatever the old attendance patterns were. But there are exceptions, and these are the real success stories in San Francisco and Milwaukee.

In San Francisco, attendance remains stronger than before AT&T Park, now in the mid 30,000s, after a peak of sellouts in the Bonds steroid era. Before that, low to mid 20,000s were more typical at Candlestick. In Milwaukee, it’s the same attendance story:  what once languished in the high teens now is in the low to mid 30s. In both cases, stadium location has made a huge difference.  And Milwaukee is doing this in a very small market.

But in nearly all other cases, attendance eventually slips back, regardless of market size.. To cite a few examples of how long it took to revert to attendance levels before the new stadium was built:

  • Detroit (2 years)
  • Houston (3 years)
  • Cincinnati (3 years)
  • Pittsburgh (3 years)
  • Atlanta (5 years)
  • San Diego (5 years)
  • Cleveland (10 years)
  • Texas (10 years)
  • Baltimore (12 years)

Obviously, these are generalizations, but the trend lines are there. In some cases, when the teams do well on the field for awhile, there is an upturn, but the long-term effect of most new stadiums on attendance appears negligible, except when the new stadium is drawing from a substantially larger fan base, and when the stadium experience is substantially improved for other reasons (weather being a consideration in SF). We might expect to see the same success in Tampa Bay, because there is so much improvement that can be achieved by moving—both from a location and amenity standpoint. But the new stadium has to be in Tampa, not St. Pete.

For Tampa Bay, here’s the basic demographic profile, relative to other cities in MLB:

  • Tropicana Field’s 30-minute commute-shed has the second lowest median income ($34,773) of any stadium in MLB, except Dodger Stadium. A Tampa location raises the 30-minute median income by $2,000, which is substantial. But that’s still low from an MLB perspective though—better only than Houston, Miami and downtown L.A. Still, an improvement.
  • Tropicana Field has the oldest surrounding population of any place in MLB—median age of 41.4 within the 30-minute commute shed. Nobody else is even close—Pittsburgh is next at 39.5. Within 30 minutes of Tampa, the average age of the population is 35.4. A big improvement compared to St. Pete from a long-term demographic base—families with kids who grow up to be fans.

So you’ve got an old, poor and small population to draw from at Tropicana Field. Three strikes. There is plenty of room for improvement right across the bay. Bill Foster, don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Be smart about this, work with the team and your political partners in the region, and everybody in the Tampa Bay area can win. 

This post was written by a member of the DRaysBay community and does not necessarily express the views or opinions of DRaysBay staff.

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