The Rays’ receiving permission to search for a new stadium location is one of the best pieces of recent news for the team and their Central Florida fans. A new stadium that provides additional income opportunities may be the only thing that keeps the team in the Tampa area.
Several possible locations in St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa have been reviewed and are being discussed. One of key factors Rays management should consider is the location’s proximity to the Orlando market.
Previously: The Rays should invest in Central Florida
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am a Rays flex pack holder and live in Orlando. It would certainly be good for me if the new location was closer to where I live. It would also be good for the Rays. For one thing, I would buy more tickets if the stadium was closer, and so would other Rays fans I know. My personal convenience notwithstanding, the Rays best chance to increase their fan base is to target the growing Interstate 4 (I-4) corridor.
Even if you don’t live in Florida, you may have heard about the I-4 corridor, especially during Presidential election years. South Florida, mostly due to the influence of Miami, tends to vote Democratic; north Florida, which includes Tallahassee and Jacksonville, tends to vote Republican. It’s Central Florida swing voters, most of whom live near I-4, who decide elections. I-4 runs from Daytona through Orlando to Tampa. Yes, it’s an interstate that actually doesn’t leave the state, but that makes it in some ways more powerful.
According to public television station WUSF, the I-4 corridor is home to some 6 - 8 million residents, depending on ho does the counting. That’s more than enough to support a major league baseball team. Metro Orlando holds 2.3 million people, and the Tampa-St.-Pete-Clearwater area holds 2.9 million. Therefore, reaching out to the Orlando market could almost double the team’s potential fan base. The same study said Central Florida is now growing at 1.3 times the rate of South Florida.
Driving from Orlando to Tropicana Field at almost any time of day, even with light traffic, takes approximately an hour and forty-five minutes. A driver attempting to get there for a 7:00 pm night game can count on navigating traffic jams through downtown Tampa and out to Clearwater and the Tampa airport.
That particular stretch of highway has been under construction since Ponce de Leon came by looking for the fountain of youth. It’s particularly frustrating for fans who reach Tampa and then endure a crawling traffic jam and another forty minutes before getting to the game.
Is there no other way?
Driving remains the best way for fans to get to the games, and probably will for the foreseeable future. Governor Rick Scott turned down the billions of dollars Congress appropriated to build high speed rail between Orlando and Tampa because he was worried about the federal debt... or something like that.
Of course, refusing the money didn’t reduce the debt; it went to support a project to build a line between St. Louis and Chicago. Had he accepted the funds we might be close to taking a train from Orlando to Tampa to see the Rays, but instead we must rely on a congested traffic system that can barely keep up with Florida’s growth.
Then when you do get to the game, you have to watch it at Tropicana Field, which, in my fifty years as a baseball fan, remains one of the worst places to watch a game. The fluorescent lights, the catwalk, the acoustics, the hard seats, and the air conditioning currents, make a game something I suffer through, even when the Rays are winning. A more inviting stadium, no matter where it’s located, should bring more fans to the game.
Tropicana Field has some good points. The Rays’ stadium staff are, in my experience, unfailingly courteous and helpful. The dome is necessary during Florida summers, because without it too many games would be rained out. If you feel lonely as a Rays fan, it’s great to watch a game among so many people wearing Rays jerseys.
Furthermore, it’s where the Rays play, and if you’re a fan there’s nothing like seeing your team in person. All of these positive qualities, including a roof, will transfer to the new location. There’s no need to preserve the Trop to preserve them.
According to the Census Bureau, Florida is now the third most populous state in the union. The I-4 corridor is the fastest-growing part of the state.
The Rays have a great opportunity to mobilize Central Florida fans in both the Tampa Bay and Orlando metro areas to support the Rays in great numbers, provided the team selects a location that makes it easier for Orlando fans to attend.
That pretty much rules out remaining in St. Petersburg, past the nightmare junction with I-275 and beyond Tampa International, but does include locations in downtown Tampa, Ybor City, and perhaps even at the Florida State Fairgrounds near the intersection of I-4 and I-275.
Read More: Rays Stadium Search: Florida Fairgrounds
Before the Rays make their final choice, they should keep in mind its proximity to the Orlando market.