Rays’ move to Hillsborough needs to start now
The Tampa Bay Rays have been the model of winning with a low budget since former general manager Andrew Friedman and former manager Joe Maddon joined forces in 2006.
The two turned the Rays from a perennial last place team that won only 61 games that year into a team that won the division and nearly the World Series just two years later.
Moreover, this impressive feat was accomplished with little help from fan-generated revenue.
Tropicana Field has been criticized for being in an ill-suited location and has continually drawn an unsatisfactory number of fans, including a dead-last average of 17,857 in 2014, according to the MLB.
The lack of fans in the St. Petersburg area has hindered the development and potential of the Rays since their birth in 1998.
One resolution to the poor attendance numbers is to move the stadium inland. A stadium located in Hillsborough County is not only more accessible, but would be surrounded by more people.
Currently, the Rays are locked into a contract with the city of St. Petersburg until 2027, but they are nearing a deal that would allow them to look for potential new stadium locations in Hillsborough, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Pinellas County has a population of 929,048 and has proven to be a poor home for the team, whereas Hillsborough has 1.29 million residents according to the U.S. Census Bureau and has already proved to be a successful home for Raymond James Stadium and Amalie Arena.
The Rays have achieved temporary success by drafting effectively and trading their best players for prospects before their contracts ended.
While this model worked until 2013, the Rays’ 2014 season suggests the current system of success may be unsustainable.
The effects of the lack of community support are already beginning to show, just four years removed from the team’s last division title.
The Rays won only 77 games and traded the team’s best pitcher, ace David Price, for prospects that will be making more of an impact in the future than in the immediate.
Following the season, Friedman left to take a position with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Maddon quickly followed suit, taking over as the manager of the Chicago Cubs.
The two men who turned the Rays from the best bet to finish last into a legitimate playoff contender year in and year out have abandoned ship.
While a new stadium in a more desirable location is tempting, the Rays would still have to pay a currently undetermined buyout fee along, as well as the cost for demolition of Tropicana Field, before they could begin to build a stadium.
On top of those costs, the Rays’ purchase of a new stadium would cost roughly $550 million. In comparison, Target Field in Minnesota and Marlins Park in Miami, the only two stadiums to have opened in the past four years, cost $522 million and $515 million, respectively.
It would be difficult for a team that is already struggling with funds to buyout its contract and buy a new stadium, but the process needs to begin now.
Unless the Rays want to hit the rest button on the construction of their franchise, they must find a new location in Hillsborough County as soon as possible to give the team a possibility of contending again.