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St. Petersburgh Gives Rays Limited Fan Support and Little Options

January 29th, 2013 at 8:55 PM
By Chad Brockhoff

Despite recent revelations that could be interpreted to the contrary, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg remains committed to keeping Major League Baseballin the region.

Speaking to the Hillsborough County and Pinellas County commissions in a span of a week, Sternberg reasserted that the team’s current home ball park,Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, prevents it from being financial viable. While not as shocking as his declaration to the Hillsborough County Commission that Major League Baseball is skeptical about the Tampa Bay area, Sternberg revealed to Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday afternoon that only 300 of the team’s season ticket accounts are connected to St. Petersburg addresses.

St. Petersburg’s perceived lack of dedication to the Rays should not be an indictment on a growing fan base. From the failed attempts to relocate teams such as the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants to the unsuccessful bid to land a National League expansion franchise for the 1993 season, Major League Baseball has always been viewed as something with appeal to the entire region.

It’s just that St. Petersburg had the venue for Major League Baseball. Ground broke on Tropicana Field, which was originally known as the Florida Suncoast Dome when it opened 23 years ago in 1986.

However, speculation regarding demographics and residents’ desire to travel to St. Petersburg from various spots throughout the Tampa Bay area never materialized. The Rays’ efforts were not aided by the fact that Tropicana Field was outdated by the time Tampa Bay played its inaugural season in 1998.

Even the team’s rise from American League East cellar dweller to becoming one of the most admired franchises in major North American professional sports has not translated into box office numbers for the Rays. Other factors hindering the Rays’ growth are St. Petersburg’s lackluster rank among area cities in terms of employment and the team’s lease to play at Tropicana Field until 2027.

In addition to being locked into playing home games at Tropicana Field, the lease also prevents the Rays from prospecting for a new stadium. A new stadium capable of attracting a greater portion of the area's population and a more entertainment-oriented customer will  produce the revenue needed for Tampa Bay to stay competitive with its divisional and league rivals.

Sternberg is looking for leverage. The leverage is to not necessarily usurp the team’s antiquated deal with the city of St. Petersburg; rather, it's to explore options in order for the Rays to remain a regional entity.

Those options become a reality if the team is able to revisit a 2008 survey on potential stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, according to Sternberg; a reality only possible if the Rays can directly or indirectly negotiate with St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster, who reinforced his commitment to his constituents paying for Tropicana Field. He has stated in the past that the city has made prior concessions such as allowing the team to move its spring training headquarters south to Charlotte County and permitting it to play regular-season home games in Orlando.

"I want to be here. I want our franchise to be here," Sternberg said on Tuesday. "We have focused on the lack of attendance. I do want to point out that all the people that come out to Tropicana Field is a lot of people. A million and a half people is a lot. … I don't take that lightly."

Tags: Baseball, MLB, Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Rays

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