Recently, the Tampa Bay Business Journal ($) reported that the Rays decision on a new stadium site could be made within the following three weeks, and they were right on the money. An announcement is expected on February 9th that the Rays have chosen the Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City for their new ballpark.
The Journal got the story when Tampa Attorney Ron Christaldi spoke on the record that, after conversations with team presidents Brian Auld, Matt Silverman, and principal owner Stuart Sternberg, the Rays were prepared to move forward with a new stadium in downtown Tampa.
This vote of confidence comes after a productive dinner meeting between the above parties, County Commissioner Ken Hagan — who up to this point had been brokering the Rays stadium search, but acting politically as a lone wolf — and, importantly, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
The remaining question mark, however — and probably the point that prevents a final announcement — is assembling the funds to cover the considerable costs. A stadium will require significant contributions from the Rays, and undoubtedly some sort of public financing, but the piece that has long been missing is finally coming into focus: the involvement of the Tampa Bay business community.
Local business leaders must step up
As discussed in the Tampa Bay Times this morning, the Rays are unique in Major League Baseball’s landscape in that corporations have comparatively less involvement in Rays ticket purchases than other teams:
Rays fans have taken a beating nationally for not supporting a franchise that has a better record than 23 other teams in the last decade but has, at the same time, had the lowest attendance in the big leagues.
The truth is, that disparity has had more to do with the business community than everyday fans.
Many teams sell the majority of their tickets before the season’s first pitch is even thrown because businesses buy season ticket packages to entertain clients or to hand out to employees.
That hasn’t been the case in Tampa Bay.
As a tourism-driven economy, we don’t have a lot of corporations. And certainly not a lot surrounding Tropicana Field. And so tickets have been sold, essentially, one at a time to you and your neighbors.
That’s why, when the Rays make their upcoming announcement, it had better include economic commitments from businesses in Hillsborough County.
The good news, for those interested in any stadium news, is that businesses may finally be stepping up.
The Tampa Bay Business Journal is reporting that Christaldi, along with Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, is in the process of setting up a nonprofit called Tampa Bay Rays 2020, which has targeted 215 local business leaders to help coordinate the development of land around the Rays stadium site, and to farm pledges for those necessary aforementioned ticket commitments.
The previously rumored non-profit and its leaders are expected to be announced in the next month, and it’s vital that non-profit exist.
Why the Rays can’t get involved
Complicating the Rays Stadium Search is the so-called “iron clad lease” that has the Rays locked in to Tropicana Field through 2027, with language prohibiting the team from even considering a stadium search
A memorandum of understanding was approved with the St. Petersburg City Council to allow the Rays to choose a new site in Pinellas or Hillsborough Counties, requiring payouts from the team if they change counties, but still prohibiting any form of “Evaluating Activities”:
In other words, the Rays are required to make their fateful decision based solely on what each county offers them. This is what makes the independent coordination of land, financing, and the commitment of corporations so significant, in either county.
The MOU was signed in January 2016 with a three year limit, giving the team just over 11 months to finalize their stadium selection.
Maybe the Rays have indeed internally decided Ybor is the place to be. It doesn’t really matter, because the Rays won’t be making any final decisions until each county has been able to prepare a deal that includes both reasonable financing to build the stadium (St. Peterburg’s advantage), and financial support for once it’s built (presumably Tampa’s).
Either way: Assurances of corporate sponsors and ticket-buyers are assurances the Rays won’t leave Tampa Bay.
This article was updated on February 8th to include the date of the forthcoming announcement.