Tampa's Glass House

by: Rich Daniels

On Tuesday the Tampa Bay Rays unveiled their plan for a new ballpark to be located in the Ybor City portion of town. 

Years of debate and contesting now focused to a pinpoint of attention with billions of dollars at stake over the next few decades. The Rays were truly on display with  both their proposed and figurative glass houses.

The Ybor City Stadium illustrations were nothing short of impressive.

An ultra-modern design that includes vast window space instead of walls which can be opened to allow Tampa Bay breezes through to entice fans into feeling as though they are outside. Topped with a translucent roof that sports a wing-like canopy, the stadium is tabbed as providing a prime view of the region's frequent lightning shows.

Seats within fountain displays and a patio area directly behind home plate complete with picnic seating would all overlook a sparkling artificial turf field. Upper deck seats would only extend as far as the dugouts. The ballpark would be ready to open for the 2023 Rays season.

There are, however, immediately recognizable shortcomings in the design.

It would be the smallest stadium in MLB offering only 28,216 fixed seats...a total only ten or eleven thousand seats more than larger minor league stadiums. Fewer seats over the same 81 home games everyone else gets can only translate to one thing: prodigious ticket prices. This leads one to believe that the proposed picnic area behind home plate might not ever come to fruition in favor of hundreds more seats. 

Overall, the proposal is loaded with promise to improve the situation the Rays have endured since their inception in the form of the insanely long 32-year Tropicana Field lease the team agreed to in 1995.

The major issues with that lease are that it ties the team to a now 28-year old facility that drastically needs upgrades no one is willing to fund and that the stadium itself is located in St. Petersburg, Florida, on the west side of Tampa Bay which puts it about as far from the largest number of available fans as possible.

As a former resident of Central Florida, that sounds quite appealing. 

The new stadium location, in Tampa, on the east side of the bay, would open up markets as far as Orlando - where I lived for several years, on a regular basis. I once traveled to see a Rays game driving 90 minutes to reach Tampa, then braving rush hour traffic through that city, across the bridge over the bay and into St. Petersburg. Two hours and fifteen minutes after I left home I was paying for parking. The trip would be about 30-40 minutes shorter to the Ybor City site.

So, it's all good, right? We all interlock arms and march down I-4 to Tampa's new crystal cathedral of baseball, yes?


It's been a long, hard battle to get a lease buyout on Tropicana Field from the city of St. Petersburg and, as the Rays discovered on Tuesday, that was just the beginning.

While everyone present at the presentation was impressed with the diligence of design for the new stadium, the price tag produced reactions equal to comedic spit-takes. A bill of $892 million dollars turned wowed expressions to stunned gapes.

Immediately everyone realized just how real things had become. The City of Tampa has no intention of footing the bill, any of it. Coaxing the estimated $83 million of infrastructure improvements the stadium will need (sewer, water, electrical lines, access roadways, etc.) might be the best anyone will get the city to provide. Some involved in the process were hoping new and/or elevated hotel taxes would foot the bill, but Tampa needs to improve its public transportation system in a big way and there are other infrastructure needs that have gone unaddressed for quite a few years. Public pressure to make those improvements first is significant and mounting every day.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg recognized the difficulty of financing his crystal palace in referencing the need to find "creative financing means" as a big part of the deal. The Tampa Chamber of Commerce has done all but officially endorse the plan and has already been at work soliciting support from their "Tampa 100", the largest corporations in the city.

There is also an idea to secure contributions from developers to help finance the stadium in exchange for rights to commercial and retail construction for adjacent properties to the 14 acre site. No one can be sure just how much of an advantage the new site will bring leading to cautious optimism coming out of Tuesday's presentation. 

The Rays now find themselves in a figurative glass house in their quest to live in a physical one.

Many are looking to the team itself to foot the bill for the stadium which is a virtual impossibility. 

For a long stretch of their history the team has been downright terrible with only 12 post-season victories since their inception in 1998 highlighted by their American League East Division Championship and improbable run to the World Series in 2008. Twelve playoff wins in 20 years is not the resume to flash in a debate over demands a team can make.

Sternberg's position was pretty well played out after securing a $42 million buyout of the Tropicana Field lease in January of 2016, so he has little, if any, leverage in securing a financing deal. Meanwhile, the team is on the outside-looking-in on the playoff race again this year currently 15.5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and nine games out of the second wild card spot.

Sternberg and the Rays desperately need out of St. Petersburg for a literal new lease on life. 

The Tampa Bay region has endured his constant pleas for relief and a better business environment and done what it could to help without putting taxpayers in a deep hole. No one entity is going to be able to solve the financing dilemma, so building a coalition of support is the next step in the process now that a definite target is set.

The hypothetical is now the actual and it's up to the people of the Tampa Bay area to decide what mix of support, both public and private, they are willing to commit to saving Major League Baseball and the billions of dollars to be made in the region over the next couple of decades. Because the only alternative left, if the Ybor City Ballpark initiative fails, is for the team to find a city that will allow them to work toward success with fewer financial constraints.

Towns like Las Vegas, San Antonio, Portland and a few others are poised to take their places in the process of luring an MLB team to their confines. 

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