The Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced today that the Tampa Bay Rays are leaving downtown St. Petersburg. He urged community leaders to rise above municipal and provisional differences to find a location that best suits the entire community.
The Tampa Bay owner stopped short of saying that the franchise will move from the Tampa Bay community, but made it clear that the team will not play out their lease, which runs through 2027, at Tropicana Field.
"The Tampa Bay Rays cannot continue as it currently exists, baseball will not survive in Downtown St. Petersburg," Sterberg told reporters at a press conference today. "Baseball franchises survive on their ability to attract fans and businesses to the ballpark. We need to be in a location our fans can reach."
The Rays have struggled with attendance in St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field throughout their existence. They have looked at possibilities of moving to locations closer to their population base in the community.
A study done by the ABC Coalition, a group consisting of civic and business leaders in the community, revealed that the stadium has the least population within a 30-minute driving radius of any team in Major League Baseball.
Studies by the coalition indicate that most fans won't drive further than 30 minutes away to attend a game, especially during the week.
"The Rays and the city (St. Petersburg) need to talk," said Craig Sher, a member of the coalition and a prominent shopping center developer said in May. "Everybody else is talking about the Rays and the city."
The conversation occurred earlier today at a meeting with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. They met shortly, but Sternberg left alone for today's press conference.
Hillsborough City Councilman Ken Hagan has repeatedly stated that the county is not actively trying to pursue the Rays, but "wants a seat at the table" for discussion to prevent the Rays from leaving the community.
Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties have a feudal rivalry that dates back to the early days of battle to bring baseball to the region.
Sterberg called for the two communities to end their differences or risk losing the franchise.
"If major league baseball is to survive in this region, we must rise above our municipal boundaries," Sternberg said. "This franchise doesn't belong to Stu Sternberg. Just as it doesn't belong to St. Petersburg or Tampa or Pinellas or Hillsborough. It belongs to the fans of the entire region of Tampa Bay. For it to continue on in the long term, we must begin a regional dialog about this stadium."
The Rays hope that the new location will open up opportunities to access more fans.
The St. Petersburg and Pinellas County community has a limited demographic for baseball fans, with the majority of the area consisting of elderly on fixed income.
Tampa, meanwhile, is where the majority of businesses in the region are located. It is also the site of the much awaited high-speed rail that will connect the Bay Area to Orlando and other regions, potentially opening up another source of fans for the franchise.
A comparison of potential sites appeared in a 2009 St. Petersburg Times article:
GATEWAY AREA (Pinellas County)
Population within 30-minute drive: 1,645,107 in 2013; 2,186,612 in 2035
Households with income greater than $75,000: 182,304
Dollars spent on entertainment: $2.21 billion
Attended Rays game in last 12 months: 275,068
Firms with more than 10 employees within 30 minutes: 16,274
WEST SHORE AREA (Tampa)
Population within 30-minute drive: 1,727,070 in 2013; 2,795,898 in 2035
Households with income greater than $75,000: 191,849
Dollars spent on entertainment: $2.23 billion
Attended Rays game in last 12 months: 250,820
Firms with more than 10 employees within 30 minutes: 17,707
DOWNTOWN TAMPA AREA (Tampa)
Population within 30-minute drive: 1,810,376 in 2013; 2,265,168 in 2035
Households with income greater than $75,000: 200,206
Dollars spent on entertainment: $2.32 billion
Attended Rays game in last 12 months: 247,237
Firms with more than 10 employees within 30 minutes: 16,100
FLORIDA STATE FAIRGROUNDS AREA (Tampa)
Population within 30-minute drive: 1,619,725 in 2013; 2,197,280 in 2035
Households with income greater than $75,000: 174,880
Dollars spent on entertainment: $1.99 billion
Attended Rays game in last 12 months: 173,606
Firms with more than 10 employees within 30 minutes: 12,577
TROPICANA FIELD (Existing Site)
Population within 30-minute drive: 1,181,714 in 2013; 1,543,047 in 2035
Households with income greater than $75,000: 123,032
Dollars spent on entertainment: $1.55 billion
Attended Rays game in last 12 months: 217,756
Firms with more than 10 employees within 30 minutes: 12,747
"We will consider all sites including those in Tampa and Hillsborough County," said Sternberg.
Despite the Rays' success on the field, which included a trip to the World Series and back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, attendance continues to sag (currently ranked twenty-third in the majors with an average of 22,301 fans per game over 33 home games this season).
Tampa Bay is currently second in the AL East with a 42-27 record, one game behind the New York Yankees.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has not issued any statement at this time. However, in the past he has stated that the city will vigorously defend its lease, which prohibits the Rays from even discussing the possibility of leaving the Tropicana Field site.