So, the Rays have finally announced plans to ditch the stadium that regularly only competes with the A’s Coloseum as the worst in Baseball. We’ve been shown some glittering pictures of a jewel like creation sitting in a built up area but is it going to happen, will it be any good, and will it increase lamentably small audiences?
The old Gaff
Tropicana Field, formerly the Florida Suncoast Dome and then the Thunderdome (Think NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning not Mel Gibson and Tina Turner) has long struggled with it’s reputation as a dingy tent in the wrong end of town. Whilst it’s true that the colour of the ceiling makes fly balls near invisible (particularly for members of the Detroit Tigers in recent years), difficultly placed catwalks and speakers interfere with play and the plastic grass looks horrendous on TV, a pinch of salt should be taken with any criticism.
As Darius alluded to after his visit to Oakland, whilst these stadiums may not be on par with Target Field or the Great American Ballpark, we’re also not talking about a Tuesday night in January away to Barnsley. The Trop is a very comfortable place to watch sport with plenty of things to see, to eat and do.
A new ballpark is an opportunity for the Rays ownership to improve all of the above, but in truth, this is a handy byproduct of their attempt to fix the real problem, and that is the location.
Where is it?
It’s a common mistake to refer to the Rays as from Tampa. It’s an understandable mistake given that the word ‘Tampa’ appears in the name, but it’s a mistake none the less. The Tampa Bay Rays are currently based in the city of St Petersburg which is not in Tampa at all.
For the majority of Tampa area residents, a trip to St Petersburg means a journey across either the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge (awesome name) or the Howard Frankland Bridge which is half an hour from the middle of Tampa by car in extremely rare clear traffic, or 2 hours plus if they fancy a drink and choose public transport. This is prohibitive to the average fan.
The new site is in Ybor City which is in the heart of Tampa. Adjacent to the east of the site is the Ybor City Party district which already has good transport links and the entertainment infrastructure ready to benefit from a nightly influx of revelers. To the south there is a mix of high income households and the cruise ship ports, and to the west is a poorer area that is set to benefit from some redevelopment and charitable efforts from the Rays.
The Tampa Bay metropolitan area has 2.8million people making it the 19th largest in the US. Last year’s TV viewership during for Rays broadcasts (during a 4th consecutive losing year) was 18th. That’s a dip from 2016 in which they were 13th. There’s interest in the wider area, just maybe not the beach end of town.
Verdict: The new location is a massive improvement for the Rays. As UK fans, we’re perhaps further away from the world class beaches of St Pete which is a shame, but we few are far from the bread and butter for the team.
What goes on top?
Think of Florida and you’ll probably evoke images of sunshine, beaches and talismanic mice. Anyone who has visited the area will also be familiar with the almost nightly tropical thunderstorms. Whilst they’re spectacular and refreshing, they’re not particularly conducive to uninterrupted baseball games; requirement number one for a new Ballpark in Florida was always going to be a roof. If the pictures are anything to go by, WOW! What a pretty roof!
The debate earlier in this process was over the type of roof. The preferred option amongst fans appeared to be a retractable roof as operated by the D’Backs, Astros, Marlins, Brewers, Mariners and Blue Jays. This would protect them from the heat of a Floridian afternoon and from the disruption of rain delays but allow real grass to be grown on the field. However, given that ‘local’ club the Marlins usually have their roof open for fewer than 10 games per season and have had problems keeping the grass alive, this seems like a very expensive addition for a cash strapped franchise.
The second option was another fixed roof ala Trop. *groans*. Other than during visits by the aforementioned circus troupe ‘The Detroit Tigers’ the drab coverings have been a constant source of misery for the Rays faithful. What’s the point of being in the Sunshine State if you can’t see the sunshine? If it wasn’t the lack of natural light that they were complaining about, the Gollumesque dome dwellers of the Trop had to guess at where the ball was headed amongst a myriad of incomprehensible ground rules relating to catwalks, speakers and other detritus hanging from the ceiling. This was not an option.
The third option was to try something innovative and different. A great big window. OK, perhaps a little more complicated than that. Pictures of the Forsythe Barr Stadium in Dunedin New Zealand were offered around the forums and lapped up with intrigue.
The Kiwis have come up with a sort of plastic window that allows 90%+ UV light whilst keeping out the wind and the rain. In theory this allows natural grass to grow. Great? Nope. The pitfalls are firstly that there’s currently a debate about replacing the Dunedin grass with 100% synthetic turf due to extreme maintenance costs on the grass and secondly the climate in southern New Zealand is considerably cooler than that of central Florida and people will either cook in an uncooled greenhouse or burn horribly in an air-conditioned dome with less than 10% UV protection.
So the Rays have come to compromise. A roof clear of obstructions that allows in light, but an unfortunate future mired in artificial turf.
Verdict: Whilst it sadly doesn’t deliver actual real live grass, it does allow cave dwelling Rays fans some exposure to natural light. Let’s hope that someone clever is designing this thing and the roof doesn’t focus the sun to burn people away like insects at the mercy of a worrying toddler with a magnifying glass…
What will it look like?
In typical Rays style whilst everyone else is zigging they are zagging. Many of the stadia built in the last 25 years are attempting to evoke a retro, traditional baseball feel. Not this one. The ultra-modern all glass look with graceful sweeping lines are both a nod to the creature for which the team is named and a departure from recent Ballpark design. It’s not one for the purists but that very much fits in with the whole ethos of the Rays.
In another departure from previous builds this stadium will be built to be the smallest in the MLB. At capacity it’ll hold 30,842 spectators which will make it the smallest by roughly 5,000 behind Progressive field. Hitting capacity is a problem the Rays would love to have as this season the average attendance so far is a meagre 14,696 exceeding only the Marlins.
Verdict: It has wow factor and a capacity that is suitable for the team. If they constantly fill it (which they won’t) they’ll have a good type of head scratching to do.
How will they pay for it?
Here lies the crux of the issue. Nobody really knows yet. It’s going to cost…take a deep breath…$892m. That’s $892,000,000. Eight hundred and ninety two MILLION dollars. To put that into perspective that’s just shy of £695m. Here are some other things that are £695m:
2.5million Big Macs
5 Royal Palaces
20 Mike Trouts
6 Jumbo Jets
What I’m trying to say here is that it ain’t going to be cheap.
Owner Stuart Sternberg has said that the organisation will be contributing at least $150m of the sum required. A large chunk of the money will be from big business, naming rights and corporate channels (Tampa is one of the big business hubs for the US), yet more funding will possibly come from the lucrative sale of the Tropicana field site (the deal surrounding this is very complicated and could warrant a lengthy and boring post of its own) but undeniably a large amount of the dosh will come from the public purse. As a tourist destination significant revenues are raised from levies such as the hotel/motel tax which is supposed to be targeted towards amongst other things tourism infrastructure. Whilst charging the public anything for a frivolous sport venue leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth, this actually reflects a more substantial percentage of private investment than has come to be expected for such a development in recent times.
It’s important to remember that as with all Sports and big business deals it’s not as if Stu is going to rock up at the builder’s firm with a fleet of lorries full of cash and hand it all over. It’ll be differed against borrowing and future earnings and other sorts of clever financial stuff that the majority of us thankfully have no reason to understand.
Verdict : Without the finance in place all we have is pretty drawings. The next few years will be telling as to whether this is feasible.
All being well this ballpark is due to be completed in 2024. By then the Rays’ current crop of budding new talent should be about to hit free agency. It is possible that the likes of Willy Adames, Jake Bauers and Brent Honeywell will be playing for the Rays, but the Kiermaiers, Archers and Snells will likely be winning for other teams by then; and there’s what all this hoo-ha is hoping to fix. What this ballpark really represents is a last roll of the dice for a franchise that can’t afford to hold onto its stars. If the funding doesn’t happen and this collapses in on itself the odds of there being a Major League franchise in Tampa Bay by the time those budding stars think about retirement are slim at best. If we’re talking about extending Adames, Bauers and Honeywell in 2025, then this ballpark will have been a roaring success. I don’t know if this’ll happen and I don’t know if it’ll work, but the Rays punch way above their weight and contribute something different to Major League Baseball and hopefully this radically different stadium can keep that happening for years and years to come.