In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Tampa mayor Jane Castor made clear that she hopes to see the Rays remain in the Tampa area. While she added the caveat that the Tampa region would “continue to grow without a doubt” regardless of the team’s future, reports Charlie Frago, Castor also made the case for the city to hold on to a team that’s been plagued by ballpark issues, low attendance, and limited revenue since its inception as an expansion franchise ahead of the 1998 season.
Tampa is “a large urban city growing each and every day,” she told the paper, “so we should be adding assets to our community rather than them being taken away by other municipalities or countries.” Financier and principal owner Stuart Sternberg floated the idea of moving the team to Montreal — which hasn’t had a major league team since losing the Expos to Washington following the 2004 season — as early as 2014, and in 2019 Major League Baseball gave the club permission to explore the possibility of playing half its home games in Montreal as soon as 2024.
Though a number of new stadium projects have been proposed throughout the years — most notably at the current site of Al Lang Stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront and in the northeast Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City — none has garnered the necessary political support. An October report by Frago and C.T. Bowen in the Tampa Bay Times suggested the club had revived its attempts to build a new ballpark in Ybor City, though such a project wouldn’t necessarily rule out the club’s split-city plans; a January 8th open letter, signed by several dozen Tampa businesspeople and published in the Tampa Bay Times, expressed support for both a new stadium in Ybor City (which it calls “an economic development platform”) and the ’sister city’ concept.
Though Castor refers to the letter as “a step in the right direction,” she declined to commit any public money to the project, stating that as much as she hopes to keep the team in the Tampa area, “the community’s appetite to pay for a stadium has left the train station.” Though she continued to rule out using any of the city’s general fund money, she did suggest her office would explore alternate funding methods. According to Frago, the proposed stadium would cost approximately $700MM, of which the Rays have promised to pay $350MM.
Tropicana Field, which the franchise has called home for the entirety of its existence, was initially built in an attempt to lure the White Sox from Chicago should the team fail to secure a suitable replacement for the increasingly dilapidated Comiskey Park or to secure one of two 1993 expansion franchises (which were eventually awarded to Denver and Miami); a team of Tampa investors nearly moved the San Francisco Giants to the area in 1992, announcing their purchase of the franchise before National League owners blocked the move under pressure from then-Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga. It opened in 1990 as the Florida Suncoast Dome, briefly serving as the home arena for the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
Since opening for baseball use in 1998, it has consistently placed near the bottom of ballpark rankings, facing criticism for its aesthetic deficiencies, a lackluster fan experience, and its infamous catwalks, which are regularly hit by batted balls and have necessitated the introduction (and frequent revision) of specialized ground rules for the field. Despite substantial recent on-field success, the Rays have consistently performed poorly in fan attendance, drawing only 14,734 fans per game in 2019 (the last pre-pandemic season), beating out only the Marlins. This may in part stem from the unusual geography of the area, which requires most of its population to cross the region’s titular bay to reach the stadium. The Rays’ lease on Tropicana Field runs through the 2027 season.