The Tampa Bay Rays’ prolonged stadium search is over. As reported by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, a brand-new facility for the team will be constructed in time for the 2028 season.
Their new 30,000-seat stadium would keep the franchise in St. Petersburg for at least 30 years after it opens. The Rays will pay approximately $700 million of the projected $1.3 billion cost, with the city and Pinellas County picking up the rest of the tab, pending approval by the city council and county commission.
The project will be part of a massive $6.5 billion redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District. Topkin explains that it will include “14,000 parking spaces; 4,800 market rate residential units, plus 600 at affordable/work force prices and 600 for seniors; 1.4 million square feet of office and medical space; 750 hotel rooms; 750,000 square feet of retail space; a concert venue with a capacity of 3,000-4,000; and a new home for the Woodson African American Museum of Florida.”
The announcement presumably ends flirtations with other locations—near and far—for a long-term home after their Tropicana Field lease expires after 2027.
New Ballpark, New Clientele?
Tropicana Field is the only home the Rays have ever known. The stadium was built in 1990 in an effort to attract an MLB club, which eventually succeeded when the then-Devil Rays began play as an expansion team eight years later. The Trop is now one of the oldest ballparks still in use in MLB and it lags behind others in convenience, aesthetics, and fan experience.
The new ballpark will surely be an upgrade over their current one in most regards, but there is one major problem it won’t solve. The main reason for the Rays’ attendance issues is that the stadium is difficult to access from the rest of the Tampa Bay area. As Michael Lortz wrote for FanGraphs in 2017, “Tropicana Field is too far from the population center and the gridlock too tangled for enough fans to see the Rays on a daily basis.”
St Petersburg’s relative inaccessibility was the catalyst for the Rays looking elsewhere for a home. They spent years courting a site in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa. They also had a dalliance with Montreal. The new ballpark will be constructed in the same neighborhood as the old one, but the details of the larger project give clues as to how they plan to work around the attendance dilemma.
The first clue is that the new stadium’s capacity of 30,000, which will be the smallest in MLB by far. The current lowest capacity of any MLB stadium is the Cleveland Guardians’ 34,830, though the new Athletics stadium in Las Vegas may also seat only 30,000 people.
The next clue is the grand scope of the larger neighborhood development project. The ballclub, city, and county plan to make the area a desirable destination for living, visiting, shopping, and entertainment even beyond baseball games. It’s a template used by the Atlanta Braves, as an example.
By decreasing the number of seats in the stadium and keeping the park in the same general location, the Rays aren’t trying to sell more tickets than they currently do—so they’ll make up the difference by increasing the price. Improving the fan experience in and around the ballpark sounds great—for those who can afford it—but if they aren’t interested in packing more fans into the park, they’ll surely pursue wealthier ones instead.
MLB Expansion Could Be Next
The Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks were MLB’s most recent expansion teams in 1998. The league has been stuck on 30 teams since then, making this the longest expansion drought since 1960.
For scheduling and mathematical reasons, 32 is a more sensible number of teams. In fact, that’s how many the NFL and NHL currently have. More importantly, expansion teams have to pay a hefty price to join the league. Two years ago, commissioner Rob Manfred estimated the expansion fee could be $2.2 billion per team. These fees would be divvied up between the existing franchises.
In July, Manfred said once the A’s and Rays stadium situations were resolved, he would like to initiate an expansion committee “shortly thereafter.” If the league expanded to two of the most desirable locales before these clubs had new homes, it would’ve hampered their negotiating leverage. For example, if MLB announced an expansion team in Las Vegas, the A’s couldn’t move there. That would’ve hindered their talks to either remain in Oakland or move to any other city.
Both of those franchises appear to be nearing resolution on their future homes, clearing the runway for expansion consideration. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that Oakland would become a top-two possible expansion site along with Nashville. However, it’s far from certain that either city would land a new ballclub. Charlotte, Montreal, Portland, and Salt Lake City (listed alphabetically) could also make strong bids.
Expansion to 32 teams would also spark realignment. Currently, there are six MLB divisions—three in each league with five teams apiece. 30 divides evenly by six, but 32 does not. MLB’s expansion committee would have to decide whether to reduce the number of divisions to four or increase them to eight. They could even opt for a radical new system that eschews the traditional American and National Leagues in favor of geographically-based conferences similar to the NBA’s and NHL’s structures, which would reduce travel. Of course, any changes will also have ramifications for the postseason as well.
There are more questions than answers at this point about expansion and little evidence with which to make assumptions. However, with the A’s and Rays both approaching new stadium agreements, the expansion drumbeat grows louder.