Regionalism versus myopia: The resumption of Hatfields versus McCoy in Tampa Bay sports

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More than a year ago, I wrote about the issue with St. Petersburg and the Rays. The city’s logistical location at the southern tip of Pinellas County is a rather isolated locale for the greater Tampa Bay metro region. Of course, for residents of St. Petersburg, the issue is simply because Tampa gets the unfair advantage, it’s the difficult place of the region to travel to and … and… and…

And I’m hearing too much of this Hatfields vs. McCoy’s bullshit once again. A myopic mentality has come to light once again after the Rays unveiled their new stadium proposal in the Ybor City area of Tampa.

Remarking about the proposal before getting back to the topic of this blog post: An $892 million stadium, only seating between 28,000 and 30,000 was proposed with a translucent roof structure so natural grass can be used in an indoor ballpark. A very-much excessively priced structure with an experimental asset? If you’re a resident of Tampa, St. Petersburg, elsewhere in the region, or even in Montréal for that matter, you should take issue with this. This is Jeffrey Loria-like tactics being employed by Stuart Sternberg. Oh, there is something fitting here, that a small park in Ybor City would mix with the neighborhood a-la Wrigley Field in Chicago.

This isn’t a neighborhood baseball club though. This franchise is supposed to represent the Tampa Bay Metropolitan region. That stadium plan fails unless you’re going to utilize the We must or else! strategy that St. Pete utilized in the 1980s and resulted in the construction of the domed venue now known as Tropicana Field.

I’m not going to go back any further in detail through Tampa vs. St. Pete baseball history. If you’d like to look into the history of the region that led to Raysball, please read Stadium for Rent by Bob Andelman as it goes back to the 1960’s and touches on the history of pro sports in Tampa Bay.

Let’s get back to things and specifically how myopia/town-over-region does not work here. Any pro sport in the Tampa Bay area represents the region and needs to be accessible in order to draw. That point is going to sound like a needless remark or it should. Hell, someone may argue how Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa is not easily accessible (downtown traffic jams). That actually plays into things here: It’s a lot easier to put up with difficulties in access when the schedule is wider apart and the games are more diverse occasions.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers draw well, fine and good (as a mediocre product or not) because of a highly limited schedule of home games and a general love for football. People will sojourn to Raymond James Stadium for what embodies a grander event. Eight games (not counting the preseason) spanning four months makes Bucs games a limited access opportunity and the region — Hernando, Pasco, Polk, Manatee, Sarasota, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties — all have citizens making the trek. (If regular-season games are grand occasions, just think of how immaculate the playoffs are… A rare event, indeed.)

With the Tampa Bay Lightning — the most competitive and often contending franchise of the local franchises — regular season games are on an irregular schedule but a lot more common during the six months of regular-season play. That — the regularity — requires a more local-base. The irregularity makes outside draws more common as well. We can’t dismiss the fact that tourists attending games is more regular too — snowbird season, as the weather is more temperate here than up north during the fall and winter months when games are played.

Then there’s the Trop. Then there’s the drop.

Tropicana Field – formerly Florida Suncoast Dome, formerly Thunderdome — has 81 games to host in a Major League Baseball regular season. That requires an accessible location for the wider region. While there will always be a base of season ticket holders, they’re not going to own the majority of the seats in the venue a-la Lightning season ticket holders at Amalie Aena(who hold 14,000 of the 19,204 seats). They own a percentage of the ballpark and the rest of the draw are those coming on a whim or on a scheduled visit on days that are good for them. With the regularity of games, you can’t expect the most local townships (Gulfport, Pinellas Park, Seminole, Largo, Clearwater) and neighborhoods to fill the rest of the ballpark. What market is like that, ones that fill the stadium to capacity with only residents within a 15-mile radius? It doesn’t help matters that the buiness center for the city is situated 10 miles north in the Gateway district.

Gateway is a hell of a lot more accessible to the wider region than downtown St. Petersburg.

Downtown St. Pete is a place to go on occasion for the wider regional citizenry, not day-after-day-after-day from distant locales.

Look, I’m not trying to shit on St. Pete here as-so-much say that the location does not work as a regular, broader draw location.  It’s nightlife on the weekends on Central Avenue shows that it does draw. It’s the regularity that limits baseball turnout and makes the location geographically unfit.

Would it work as a spot for a new Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium? Yes — once a week treks will happen in mass. Other NFL markets prove this. How do you think Dallas can actually have a stadium with over 100,000 seats? The Buccaneers franchise isn’t that competitive, though it’s loyalists will be married to the team no matter what and go where they have to for a game. It’s only once a week at most.

Does St. Pete work as an arena sports venue? History says so: The irregular schedule of the NHL drew a crowd to a venue with horrific sightlines and a still-developing team in a non-traditional market. Add the fact that your base only has to be 20,000 (give or take) in attendance. While Amalie Arena is only seven years or so older than the Dome, it has seen regular renovation and refurbishment during its time in use. Baseball stadiums are a different beast – they last as-is and are either iconic or replaced. Then again, that’s a truth for most sports venues. Heck, how long has their been stadium talk for the Rays and when was the last time you saw a discussion on replacing Amalie Arena?

Tampa Bay — the region, people, not the body-of-water and not Tampa alone — is a sprawling area. Even at the center of the three major cities in the area (Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater) the urban cores are small and give way to suburban housing and sprawl all-too-easily. It’s why a wider regional draw for baseball should be recognized as a need. What this comes back to, sadly, is the accessibility argument and the Hatfields vs. McCoy’s rivalry crap with thanks to myopia from St. Pete residents. Tampa is less accessible to them and that means it all. Or at least that’s how this tends to play out in arguments I see online. Tampa gets too much, St. Pete deserves more, to hell with the rest of the region, and la-de-da.

For what it’s worth, my location in North Pinellas County is equidistant to downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg. The difference is that it’s a maze of roads to get to St. Pete while hopping on Tampa Road can get me directly to major road arteries of one variety or another and wider access to Tampa and Hillsborough counties. It’s a more centralized location for the wider region than the surrounded-by-water tip of Pinellas County.

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