TAMPA — Dismal corporate ticket sales have long been blamed for the Tampa Bay Rays attendance woes.
Corporations and businesses account for two-thirds of ticket sales for most Major League Baseball teams but only one-third for the Rays at Tropicana Field.
That is not because Tampa Bay has too few major employers, according to a market study conducted for the team as part of its search for a new ballpark site, Rays President Brian Auld said Friday.
“That bit of information has confirmed our long-held belief that baseball can work in Tampa Bay,” Auld said. “We need to generate a lot more support from the business community in the Tampa Bay region; that is the most obvious takeaway from our due diligence process so far.”
The team plans to work with local business leaders and chambers of commerce of both sides of the bay to figure out how they can sell more seats and corporate boxes in a new ballpark, Auld told Hillsborough and Tampa business and political leaders at a closed-door meeting Friday.
That will begin with meetings with Bob Rohrlack, CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, once the team’s historic trip to Cuba and opening day are out of the way early next month.
The Rays can no longer just focus on selling season tickets, Auld said. That will likely mean more flexibility for businesses wanting to invest in premium seating and luxury suites. Auld also wants the discussion to shed light on how the team’s ambition to build a “next generation” ballpark can mesh with the business community’s needs. Companies often use corporate suites to entertain clients or reward employees.
“It may be that for one business, two suite nights and an employee outing is the best way us for to get their support; for another, it may be six seats for all 81 games,” Auld said
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who attended Friday’s meeting along with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, said the Rays will also look for ideas on how to boost corporate tickets sales from local business leaders. That will likely include Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay President Brian Lamb, who are both part of the working committee formed by Hagan and Buckhorn to bring the Rays to Hillsborough County.
Hagan has a simple explanation for the Rays’ failure to sell tickets to companies right now: Tropicana Field.
“It’s an archaic facility in a terrible location,” he said.
That assessment was supported, albeit in more formal language, by the 2010 ABC Coalition report commissioned by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
It found that a majority of corporate offices in Tampa Bay are outside St. Petersburg and some distance from the Trop. The report concluded that downtown St. Petersburg and the Florida State Fair Grounds were not viable locations for a ballpark. Only the Gateway area, Westshore and downtown Tampa had sufficient population density and concentration of businesses to support professional baseball, it concluded.
The report also said Tropicana Field does not provide the same quality of corporate amenities comparable to other MLB stadiums.
The Rays are still conducting their own marketing studies and Auld said they have not yet reached any conclusions about the best location for a new ballpark.
At the Friday meeting the Rays also shared more ideas on their concept to make a new ballpark a community asset that is open every day of the year.
New ideas floated Friday included a state-of the-art training center that could double as a community wellness center, perhaps in partnership with local universities, Auld said.
The many kitchens where game-day food is cooked for fans could be used for a culinary institution or training facility.
“We call it reconstructing the ballpark,” Auld said. “We’re going to look at every single piece of the stadium, ask the community how can we make that part effective for you year round?”
Hagan said that perhaps could make the use of tax dollars for part of the stadium cost more palatable for the public.
“They’re looking at other areas where a ballpark could really help to assist with various community needs and taking advantage of our cultural assets,” he said. “It’s a new paradigm with respect to the facility.”