With adoring fans yet the league’s worst home-game attendance, the team’s future at Tropicana Field is uncertain.
“Wearing the jersey is like my superhero cape,” Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer says proudly. “Children’s ears, eyes and minds open up when they see it.”
When athletes perform, they like to perform for a crowd. They get their juice off packed stadiums, screaming fans and obnoxious cardboard signs. Rays players are no exception.
So when lack of attendance at the games is consistently a problem, what should the Rays do?
The team has a contract with the city of St. Petersburg to play at Tropicana Field for another 12 years, until 2027. The team has promised to honor the contract, but some in Major League Baseball say the Rays should consider breaking the contract and moving elsewhere.
Last season, the Rays ranked 30th – dead last – in attendance, according to MLB. The team, which draws an average of 16,000 fans per game, has finished last or next to last in 13 of the 18 years of its existence.
Archer said he tries “to find the best in every situation,” but it is “hard to find the best in being the worst in attendance.”
At Tropicana Field, “we don’t get very many people, but the people who come we know love the Rays,” he said. “So it doesn’t get as loud as other places, but you know the people who are there are really investing a lot to be there so there is that element.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he hopes the Rays choose to stay in St. Petersburg. But he also maintains that the 85-acre Tropicana Field site on the western fringe of a resurgent downtown is a prime location for redevelopment.
It would be a win-win for the city if the Rays ultimately decide to stay in St. Petersburg in a new, state-of-the-art stadium amid new development – probably some combination of hotels, retail and condominiums – on the site, he said.
In January, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-3 to give the Rays three years to search for a new home in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The agreement stipulates that, if the Rays decide to leave, they would have to pay the city $2 million to $3 million a year until their lease expires in 2027 and forfeit any part of the revenue that would be generated by redevelopment on the 85-acre site.
If the Rays choose to stay in a new stadium on the site, they would get 50 percent of the development proceeds.
“I am not convinced they will go to Tampa.” Kriseman said. “The current location gives them the best long-term success in the Tampa Bay region.”
It took more than a year, three attempts and a City Council election – which changed one member on the council – for Kriseman to get the council’s approval on the deal.
If the Rays end up in Tampa, Archer said, he hopes the small but loyal fan base in St. Petersburg would come to games there.
“I hope our fans would travel to Tampa,” he said. “I feel like if we stretched it and it was in a better location, people getting off of work would come.
“The Lightning get great attendance (in Tampa) and this is Florida, it’s not really a hockey state.”
At least one St. Petersburg fan hopes the team stays put.
“I don’t think that the Rays should move,” said USFSP senior Jessica Leonard. “The Rays games and the spirit of the games alone is one of my favorite things about St Petersburg. It is a part of the culture.
“Tampa has the Buccaneers, but the Rays belong at Tropicana field.”
Information from the Tampa Bay Times was used in this report.