After a 5-3 vote by the St. Petersburg City Council, the Tampa Bay Rays have been granted permission to search for a new stadium for the first time in franchise history.
Under the proposal written by the team, the Rays search will be restricted to Tampa Bay and includes a termination clause of the current lease, should a new stadium be found. Additionally, the Rays will be able to leave Tropicana Field as early as the 2018 season.
This was a necessary vote for the Rays to make any progress toward remaining in Tampa Bay.
Without permission to search for a new stadium, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg claimed he would be forced to sell the team due to a lack of economic feasibility, but he needed the City Council's expressed permission to even consider leaving Tropicana Field.
The lease for Tropicana Field legally prohibits the Rays from considering any stadium locations outside the St. Petersburg city limits. This amendment expands the search area for a new stadium to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Now that the Rays have permission to consider a new stadium, a search can begin.
Once a new stadium location is found, the Rays can terminate their lease for a cost of $24 million beginning in 2018 -- a sum that decreases each year the team remains at Tropicana Field. The current lease expires after the 2027 season, but the proposal as written is limited to a three-year search window, but the team is unlikely to let that window expire.
Despite strong television ratings and fan support, the Rays currently have the smallest population base within a 30-minute drive of the stadium, and consequently, the lowest attendance figures in the league. It is no secret that the team is most likely to chose a stadium location closer to its population base in the city of Tampa.
Should the Rays move, the city of St. Petersburg would be free to convert the 85-acres of land used by Tropicana Field and its parking lots into valuable residential developments, which several members of the City Council saw as a necessary outcome.
By allowing the Rays to vacate Tropicana Field early, the city and developers can take advantage of low interest rates, while receiving a financial buyout from a team destined to leave the city limits either way. Then again, leaving the city of St. Petersburg is not a foregone conclusion.
The Rays previously considered a new stadium at Al Lang Field on St. Petersburg's waterfront. While such a location may actually lengthen the travel time for most fans to reach the stadium, it was a beautiful design, and may be able to capitalize on recent economic development in Pinellas County.
You can read the Rays' stadium search proposal in full here.