According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays may have identified a future ballpark location at the recently abandoned K-Force headquarters building on the north side of ongoing redevelopment at Tampa Park (and northwest of the previous preferred Rays stadium location of Ybor).
Partnering with ongoing redevelopment is certainly wise. Many ballpark plans in recent years have been part of larger redevelopment efforts, with the old model of stand-alone stadium surrounded by parking a thing of the past.
Some of the best recent examples are Wrigleyville in Chicago (mixed-use redevelopment around an existing stadium) and The Battery in Atlanta (new development including a stadium and entertainment/retail venues), the latter of which hosted the World Series in 2021.
By inserting a stadium into local redevelopments like the currently named Gas Worx project, the Rays can catalyze such redevelopment, but they would be unlikely to capitalize on the revenue that occurs outside the stadium. It is worth considering whether there is another part of Tampa where the Rays could be intimately connected to the additional revenue streams to be built.
And the solution could also eliminate the elephant in the room whenever we talk about the long-term sustainability of major league baseball in the area — the New York Yankees.
The Rays are not the only professional baseball happening in Tampa Bay, and in the long history of the sport are only recent entrants to the Tampa Bay market. But when it comes to the city of Tampa itself, the New York Yankees have a problematic stranglehold on the future of Rays baseball.
The Yankees began spring training in Tampa in 1996— just two years before the Rays played their first game, making it something of a myth that the Yankees have a long history in Tampa; however, the presence of the Yankees and their ongoing influence via local politics, charitable endeavors, and fanbase interactions make the prospect of Rays moving a couple exits away down the road an untenable scenario.
If and when the Rays and the city of Tampa choose to work together on a new ballpark, the city will also need to choose who they want to support — the Rays or their rival Yankees.
Having the Yankees spring training and minor league complex is an inherent disadvantage, so much so that MLB rules previously dictated that a major league team should have the ability to force a rival to vacate their minor league team if it is within 15 miles of a ballpark.
This was referred to as Rule 52, and governed the terms and conditions by which a Major League Club may acquire the territorial rights of a Minor League team, as summarized on MiLB’s website in this open letter from 2010:
In essence, pursuant to Rule 52, a Major League team wishing to relocate within a 15 mile radius of an existing Minor League club must acquire those rights through a formal notification to the team, the California League and the National Association of their intent to “draft” the territory.
The Major League Club must compensate the Minor League Club for the value of that territory based on a formula. The Major League Club, at their option, can require the Minor League team to relocate or can consent to allow that team to continue operations under present conditions. The amount of compensation due the Minor League Club, California League and the National Association is impacted significantly by the decision to relocate or to stay but under either option the Major League Club must still compensate all parties in drafting the territory.
Recent examples of these transactions include Miami, Denver and Phoenix. In these cases, the Minor League teams were forced to relocate away from their historic homes.
It’s not clear when in the last decade this Rule was dropped from MLB’s guidelines, nor is it clear what mechanism has taken its place to compensate both sides in a scenario like the Rays are pursuing by moving to Tampa. And there’s the catch: while there is a rule would have allowed the Rays to force the Yankees out of the Tampa market, there was also an element of compensation that must occur as well.
Instead of tempting fate with a protracted legal battle over MLB’s rules, the wiser decision for both the Rays and Yankees may be to preempt such a conflict with the purchasing of the Yankees spring training complex by the Tampa Bay Rays, and it’s an advantageous solution as well.
George M. Steinbrenner Field, or Legends Field, as it is known locally, already has a foothold in the perfect location for the Rays to take an active role in building a Battery-like entertainment center, offering 31-acres of land, as well as a local business partner who would also be incentivized to cultivate a similar project: The Buccaneers.
Located on opposite sides of Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, the Yankees and Buccaneers stadiums are connected by a footbridge that offers more than a dozen open lots that are rife with redevelopment opportunities, and with minor league fields already dotting the area as well.
Here is a possible map of the combined footprint of the two stadiums and surrounding parking lots:
The land also includes the corporate offices of both the Yankees and the Buccaneers, as well as an NFL practice facility.
The Buccaneers are rumored to already have their own desires to break ground on a retractable roof stadium, and it would make sense to build on land adjacent to the current stadium while that work is performed.
Imagine what could be possible if the stadiums and practice fields within the red outline were organized and positioned in an efficient or centrally located manner.
In one scenario, MLB and NFL practice fields could be positioned on opposite sides of the central entertainment district, while the Stadiums could be positioned adjacent to one another on the north side of the land, away from the Tampa International Airport landing strip located to the southwest of the image.
Forgive my lack of professional editing skills, but imagine the following stadium and practice field positions, where the remaining blue can be used for entertainment districts, hotels, residential buildings, restaurants, and — most importantly — parking garages.
In this scenario, I imagine the complex builds a large land bridge over Himes Avenue for foot traffic into the NFL stadium.
If this plan were possible, though, why would the Yankees sell their land to the Rays to pursue such a project? It all comes back to the Rays leverage.
If and when the Tampa Bay Rays move to Tampa, MLB must recognize it is not fair for the Yankees to keep their operations in such close proximity. And if the Commissioner’s office agrees, it is then more advantageous for the Yankees to sell to the Rays than it would be to be evicted, per MLB rules.
There is not much open land to be had in Tampa Bay, but this location on Dale Mabry has it in spades, and has already proven to be viable for entertainment through the International Plaza and many sporting events and music festivals already occurring at and around Raymond James Stadium.
Dale Mabry Highway has also proven to be viable for such mixed-use modern developments, as seen with the recently constructed Midtown Tampa complex two miles down the road.
And when it comes to financing the overall project, it helps that the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, are among the richest in all of professional sports.
Time is of the essence for the Rays to find their next home, as any stadium project will take four to five years of construction, and the use agreement for Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season. The Rays need to find a new home, no matter where they go, and they need to find it sometime in the calendar year.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Rule 52 was not included in the 2021 edition of MLB’s rules.