Throughout the 2011 season, you may have heard all about the fierce debate raging in Tampa and St. Petersburg about a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays and replacing Tropicana Field with a "much-needed" pile of rubble. ESPN's Orel Hershiser has called the Trop "one of the worst stadiums ever created," while analysts at all the major networks have talked incessantly about both the lack of crowds and anti-baseball atmosphere the Trop - and by extension, its host city of St. Petersburg - seem to afford.
There have been cries from all corners of the sports world saying the Rays deserve far better, in the "city of importance in the region" of Tampa and not some "distant suburb", and will move to another city that will provide them better if they don't act fast, like Charlotte, San Antonio, or Las Vegas.
But what you may not have heard is that there has been talk and negotiations going on for a few years now. Starting a week after the Rays announced their new color-scheme and shortened name from "Devil Rays", they announced their own, unsolicited design for a new park on Tampa Bay in downtown St. Petersburg. I'm sure you've seen the "sailboat stadium" design, as it was still making the rounds in Yahoo! Sports stories as late as February 2011, even though that design and concept of transforming the current Trop site into a commercial mecca died in mid-2008.
So, where does it stand now? Well, it depends on who you ask. If you ask owner Stu Sternberg, he'll tell you that the situation is dire and needs to be rectified yesterday.
If you ask St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster, he'll tell you that everything's going according to plan, since the Rays have a lease at Tropicana Field until 2027, and the city is working on a stadium design and location within city limits as we speak - in secret, of course. In fact, Foster can learn the lesson from other regions that built new stadiums - Miami-Dade footing 70% of the bill for the new Marlins Stadium, for example - and has threatened to sue not only the Rays, but also MLB on grounds of violating the antitrust exemption they were given based on the "Federal Baseball Club vs National League" case in 1922 if they try to leave early without "making the city whole."
Ask a special commission put together by former St. Pete mayor Rick Baker, called the ABC Commission, and they'll tell you they know how to solve the problem - a downtown Tampa retractable-roof park - but don't know how to fund it without burdening Tampa any more than they already are with the prices of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Raymond James Stadium, and George Steinbrenner Field being taken out of the tax funds every year until 2028.
In reality, they're really not as far off as the talking heads will have you believe. Should it come down to it, the furthest the Rays will ever move from St. Pete is Tampa and not to other locales and here's why:
Charlotte, the city that's been labeled the biggest contender to take a Major League team, is having stadium debates of its own, but for minor league parks. If it can't get its act together for the AAA Knights and Knights Stadium, how on earth could it handle the pressure and precision of the major leagues?
Las Vegas, the perennial bridesmaid in sports, is always used as leverage by teams wanting new digs, but as long as it allows sports betting, no sports league will ever allow a team to be that close to perceived corruption-potential. This is especially true of Major League Baseball.
San Antonio is the largest city in the United States without an MLB team, and it has a vacant stadium that could be the Rays' new home, with a little retooling, already built, the Alamodome. However, that has the same issues as the Trop (fixed-roof, needing artificial turf, etc.), so would it really make sense to move from one dome to another?
New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia could all sustain a new team in their metros, but if they don't have a new facility built (and in this economy, money is hard to come by), that would mean they would have to share a park with the existing teams, leading to the mother of all scheduling nightmares.
Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Indianapolis, Portland, Orlando, and many other metro areas are smaller than Tampa Bay and, while apathy may appear rampant in these parts, would be worse with a smaller potential fan base.
So, where does that leave us? Well, pretty much where we started, but with a better understanding of the dynamics moving the stadium debate. You can talk about attendance all day and how it affects payroll, and by extension the team's performance, as well as how it can be fixed, but the fact remains that until money can be delivered by either the Rays, St. Pete, Tampa, or maybe a combination of all the local county governments (though that's no small feat, considering the...umm, dynamic...each city and county in the Tampa Bay area has with each other), the Rays are playing in downtown St. Pete at the much-maligned dome for the foreseeable future, and not much can be done about it.
Ownership needs to embrace this harsh reality instead of sending mixed-messages to the community (last year's "Only at the Ballpark" commercials on local TV, created to raise fan interest in the Trop, seemed moot when Sternberg and manager Joe Maddon would talk the park down on an almost-nightly basis) by making the experience as pleasant as humanly possible. I personally think they do a great job when you get to the park, but getting people to drive there is the big issue, one they contradict themselves on constantly.
When a new stadium site is decided, the one that makes the most sense financially is the parking lot of the current Trop - St. Petersburg is the fourth-largest city in Florida, after all, and it has very good post-game choices and the only place discussed where the land is free. With some minor transportation improvements, like a high-speed pedestrian ferry from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Pete to avoid the bridges, it would be easier to get by all residents than other plots of land discussed - it will be one that rivals the greatest stadiums. This lengthy war of words is just ensuring only the best rises from the ashes of the Trop. Until more action takes place in the vetting process, though, watch out for the talking heads and their venom; what you hear isn't always the whole picture.