Isolation and the Tampa Bay Rays quest for a new stadium [UPDATED]

Insecure, narcissist and self indulgent. These words are commonly thrown toward current United States President Donald J. Trump (as they should be). Yet what’s inspiring these words at the moment is reflecting on a city; one town in a grander regional area that wants to be on top. It’s a town that wants prominence in the region through a national spotlight, even if that spotlight is dimmed by way of the city itself.

St. Petersburg, Florida’s population is almost 250,000, 16,000 more than Reno, Nevada (“America’s Biggest Little City”). It’s part of the grander Tampa Bay metroplex. Its quest to one-up Tampa (the larger city in the Bay area) was part of why the town constructed the venue known now as Tropicana Field. Never mind the fact there was no slated pro sports team to play within the building when construction was approved in the mid-1980s; St. Petersburg had to force the location if and when (if ever) Major League Baseball expanded or relocated to Tampa Bay.

Being a Tampa Bay resident for so long, having seen and experienced life with the Dome and St. Pete in general, I cringe and shake my head now. Topping another city to lock in control of a potential jewel only shows a lack of self awareness. St. Pete has one, basic fault that keeps it understated in a the wider region; a very simple fault that’s on display at Tampa Bay Rays games and which is why a new stadium is a hot point with the club and why relocation outside of the region is a possibility….

The city of St. Petersburg and more specifically the downtown center of the town is at an isolated point at the southern tip of Pinellas County. To the south is the mouth of Tampa Bay, to the east is the waters of Tampa Bay. To the west is the sprawl of the city itself before the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To the north is the suburban sprawl and other towns of Pinellas County, connected by a network of roadways that are not idealized for a trip to St. Pete. Heck, the business center of St. Pete isn’t in downtown, it’s the Gateway district to the north of the city center and on the border with Clearwater and is the western connection of the Howard Franklin Bridge, which connects mid- and south-Pinellas with the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

I didn’t mention points south of St. Petersburg – Manatee and Sarasota Counties, connected via the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Between distance (Bradenton, in Manatee County, is 24 miles away; Sarasota is 36 miles) and population (both towns have less than 54,000 residents) the southern draw is minor at best.

With 81 dates of games slated for a MLB season at home, a franchise positioned in a smaller market needs to be able to draw from a wider area consistently. Tropicana Field’s location doesn’t afford this. Not on a consistent basis, at least. It’s helped keep attendance in the tank for the Rays. Since the team’s inception into MLB in 1998 through the 2016 season, average attendance at Tropicana Field is 18,266 (averaged out from Baseball-Reference.com’s listed data). The club only held a relatively high average attendance in the American League once (ranked 7th in 1998, its inception season, with a 30,942 attendance). That first season bliss disappears as the newness hype washes away as well growing experience of the pain in the ass that is commuting to St. Petersburg.

By contrast, the Tampa Bay Lightning played at the venue between 1993 and 1996, three seasons of NHL play. And NHL season is 82 games, with 41 played at home. With the less regularity (and perhaps a greater curiosity to a sport in a non-traditional market) the Bolts averaged 19,183 (thanks to Hockeydb for the data). That’s a sport (ice hockey) being played regularly in a venue not ideal for the game (sight lines and such at the dome being with baseball in mind). Capacity itself was muted by the playing surface being so isolated from the wider seating area… and they still outdrew what the Rays have done.

Why not? A game every couple of days at an isolated location isn’t a routine headache compared to MLB, where a home game is part of a series of games against one opponent, which tend to be part of a grander homestand (several opponents with the series against each lasting two to four games).

It’s that barrage in scheduling that makes accessibility a necessity for a MLB venue. It’s hard to compare the situation with the NFL – where one game a week and the media build-up to each game makes arduous trips an afterthought.  NHL or NBA locations just need the thoughts about the schedules less regularity. Urban and suburban areas can draw the 20,000 or so who regularly attend games.

The isolated location of St. Pete works against everything. While it’s not as closed off as the proposed stadium location in Oldsmar (a mite sized town at the top of Tampa Bay), its location is away from the population.  The towns in locations north in Pinellas County don’t have prime transit access; a girth of surface roads with twists, turns and stop-and-go doesn’t find interstate access to downtown until they reach mid-county, in a western corner by the water. Then there’s Tampa, who do have access to I-275 (the interstate of note). The issue here is the venture across the bay on the Howard Franklin Bridge (which is the major cross-bay thoroughfare). To journey during rush-hour to make a 7 PM game is a headache and waiting game unto itself. Now factor in other towns and populations that have access to I-275 on the east side of the bay (Wesley Chapel, Land’o’Lakes and other towns to the immediate north) and the venture is less desirable. Then there’s another segment: Those further to the east in Central Florida who might be up for an occasional game (Plant City, Lakeland, or as far away as Orlando). Taking I-4 on top of I-275 just adds to how rare the event would be.

It’s not like every MLB team draws capacity regularly, but some suffer most by way of mediocrity and not city size or venue accessibility. The Tampa Bay Rays seem down in the dumps no matter how the club performs. It’s mixed headaches like this (team performance issues, poor attendance, and stadium replacement desire) that have long contributed to franchises relocating in every sport.

I got set off writing this piece by a column written by John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times. Romano plays up St. Petersburg after revelations by the Rays on the stadium search. It’s one thing to keep St. Petersburg in discussions as a potential site, but playing up the current location or places directly on the waters of Tampa Bay in downtown St. Pete just come off as a smaller view than ever before.

With the costs to run a productive baseball team, attendance matters. Stadium location matters to draw the widest body of attendees to watch games in person. A unique venue itself is a draw, but to put that in isolation has the makings of business issues grand enough to lead to relocation from the market.

Is St. Petersburg a sound location for a MLB stadium?

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UPDATE June 21: By chance, I happened across an article from Tampa Bay Rays blog  DraysBay that ran exactly 7 years ago on the date of this update, where Stuart Sternberg started the new-stadium rhetoric by way of a press release and a notable statement: Baseball will not work long-term in downtown St. Pete”. These words were uttered by Sternberg during a press conference about the situation yet the press release aimed things more regionally in how Tampa Bay could not take a isolated mindset of its own, where the team belonged to a location:

“Baseball in the Tampa Bay area does not belong to Stu Sternberg, just as it doesn’t belong to St. Petersburg
or Tampa, Pinellas or Hillsborough. It is a regional asset. It belongs to our fans throughout the region. For
this asset to be preserved, a comprehensive process to explore a new ballpark must begin. That process
needs to consider all possible locations throughout Tampa Bay – meaning Tampa and Hillsborough as well.”

It’s a noteworthy read for history sake, and possibly as a compliment to what I say about hte isolation of the current locale. That’s just my take on it though.

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