Though recent on-field performances may suggest otherwise, the Tampa Bay Rays’ long-term future in the region should generate excitement to the community and fans alike.
At least that was the pitch from Jason Woody to a room filled with business leaders and elected officials at the North Tampa Bay Chamber’s breakfast meeting earlier this month, at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel.
Woody, president and CEO of Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research, spoke on behalf of Tampa Bay Rays 2020. He’s on the advisory board for the privately funded nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing a new Rays ballpark to Tampa.
Woody is making the rounds discussing the group’s initiatives and the progress made since the Rays officially announced a new stadium site in Ybor City, in February.
While the total costs and funding sources have not been identified, the initiative calls for relocating the Rays from Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to a 14-acre parcel along Adamo Drive, between Channelside Drive and 15th Street, and adjacent to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. An additional option to acquire 27 acres is also available, if expansion is needed for parking and so on.
Woody branded the Ybor stadium site as “a perfect anchor, a perfect bookend” to the $3 billion Water Street development in downtown Tampa orchestrated by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
Rays 2020 was co-founded by Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Ron Christaldi, partner at Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick. It now features several Tampa business leaders and volunteers ensuring the baseball franchise remains in Tampa Bay.
The leadership team helped secure the land from Darryl Shaw, the CEO of BluePearl Veterinary Partners and a major developer in Ybor City.
Said Woody, “Most of the…problems coming up with the ability to build a new ballpark is the location and the land. They got the landowners together to say, ‘Hey, if it was to come here…would you be on board?’ and that’s what they did.”
He jokingly added, “The last thing you want is find out you’re going to build a great ballpark and somebody’s home is where the pitcher’s mound is.”
Conversations of a new Rays ballpark have been ongoing for over a decade, since Stuart Sternberg took controlling ownership of the team.
Those talks were heightened from perennially poor attendance and low revenues —
even in times of winning seasons and playoff berths.
Ample blame has been placed at the current stadium location, frequently an inconvenience for Tampa residents forced to fight rush-hour traffic and cross the congested Howard Franklin Bridge.
The more centralized Ybor City site, however, promises to deliver convenient access for a much higher yield of people living and working nearby. About 300,000 people live or work within 5 miles of the proposed stadium site. Moreover, about 1.6 million people live or work within 35 miles of the location.
Woody said those numbers “are almost triple” in comparison to Tropicana Field, while noting about 50 percent to 70 percent of the Rays current attendance is from people living in Hillsborough County.
“Every county in proximity had more attendees show up to a game than in (St Petersburg’s) backyard,” he said.
“People don’t realize this, but I’m not sure that even if we wanted to keep the Rays in St. Pete that Major League Baseball would allow it to happen. We don’t have the attendance. We don’t have the numbers,” he added.
The Rays contract with St. Pete runs through 2027, but the city has agreed to let the team pay to leave early. Some leaders, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, say the first Rays game in Ybor City could happen by 2022.
Woody also shared some details about what the new ballpark may look like, and what it may cost.
Early sketches show an indoor ballpark without an upper deck, seating about 30,000 — considerably smaller than the Tropicana Field’s capacity of 47,000.
Woody portrayed it as “a unique ballpark” that delivers the intimacy of a spring training game, close enough “to hear the crack of the bat.”
While renderings show an option for a retractable roof, Woody pointed out the added maintenance and expense costs — upward of $100 million. He also cited the unreliability of retractable roofs, based on experiences of other MLB clubs.
“If you have looked, they have not been that successful. Some stadiums have had to manually close the roofs, which takes almost two days to manually retract it,” Woody explained.
The ballpark is still in design, so an exact figure hasn’t been determined, but Woody said its construction cost is “probably in the neighborhood” of $600 million to $800 million.
As for financing the stadium project, Woody suggested tourist development taxes could be utilized, along with contributions from Rays ownership, private funding and stadium naming rights.
“The very first thing is, we have to figure what this is going to cost and how much (the Rays) are going to come in, and then we’ll work from there,” he said.
Woody mentioned each of the Rays’ corporate sponsors have agreed to support the team’s move to Ybor City. There’s also the ‘Rays 100,’ a collection of 100 executives and civic leaders willing to serve as ambassadors for the effort to move the Rays across Tampa Bay.
The Rays 100 group, unveiled earlier this month, is expected to enlist local businesses and corporations to pledge financial support for a new stadium, through corporate boxes and season tickets.
Said Woody, “Two things make a baseball team successful — corporate sponsorships and butts in the seats. That’s the cheat code. Revenue goes up, you have a budget, and you can get better players on the field.”
Toward the the end of the meeting, a Rays 2020 representative extended an invitation to the North Tampa Bay Chamber to sign a letter of support for a new stadium.
In response, chamber members belted out a resounding “Yes!” — accompanied by a loud burst of applause.
For more information on Rays 2020, visit TampaBayRays2020.com.
Published April 18, 2018