This week’s rollout of a local corporate campaign to move the Tampa Bay Rays to Ybor City reflected both the excitement and the challenge in the short time ahead to keep Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay area. Tampa organizers will need to build their corporate base and reach out more to the business community in Pinellas and other neighboring counties. But at this early stage, business leaders are cognizant of the lift it will take and the deadlines for getting a proposal on the table.
The nonprofit group Tampa Bay Rays 2020, which is working to bring the team to Ybor City, named 75 members Wednesday of what will become the Rays 100, a group of local leaders who will serve as ambassadors to move the team across the bay. As expected, the group comprises well-connected executives and business owners, and is top-heavy with Tampa names that have long been associated with major community initiatives. Many of those involved represent some of the area’s largest employers, and the list, for good measure, also includes iconic Ybor figures who will carry weight in selling this initiative in Tampa.
The Rays announced Feb. 9 that the team wants to build a new ballpark on 14 acres in Ybor City. The location would put it between the bustling nightlife in the historic Latin Quarter and a resurgent Tampa downtown that is filling with new apartments, shops, parks and other modern urban amenities. Just as important for the team, the site would be more centrally located for the region’s population base, within a 30-minute drive of roughly double the 680,000 people who live within a half-hour’s drive of Tropicana Field. That translates into a bigger potential fan base that the Rays and its supporters see as essential for keeping the team in the bay area.
Wednesday’s announcement marks a major, public step by the Rays 2020 group to mobilize its operation. The Rays 100 will help the umbrella group by working to secure pledges for financial support for the team — through sponsorships and ticket sales — and by raising the visibility of the recruitment campaign. The Rays 2020 group also formalized its effort, naming two vice chairs and forming an advisory group to keep the larger effort on track. Creating a vehicle for involving business and civic leaders on a range of levels is smart. It makes the campaign more community-oriented while under a single message. It also strengthens the opportunity for expanding the team’s fan base, which expands the long-term viability of Major League Baseball in the region.
Now the challenge for Tampa organizers is to build from here. Rays 2020 co-founder Chuck Sykes acknowledges the need to bring more Pinellas business leaders into the mix. He plans to tap key business leaders on that side of the bay to bring Pinellas more squarely into the effort. Rays 2020 organizers recognize the need for personal outreach. Vice chair Jason Woody pitched the campaign Tuesday during a breakfast meeting of the North Tampa Bay Chamber at Pasco Hernando State College’s Porter campus — and by the end of the 30-minute session, the chamber agreed to sign a letter of support.
This hints at the sort of all-out effort that the Rays 2020 campaign will need to secure support if it hopes to succeed. Under its deal with St. Petersburg, the Rays have until the end of the year to search for a new home. While the Rays’ lease at the Trop expires in 2027, the clock is already ticking. Sykes is mindful of the timing, and he has brought a needed urgency to the table.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg buoyed the Ybor campaign last month by suggesting the team may be willing to pay up to half the $800 million estimated price for a new stadium. That, rightly, is far more than the Rays have earlier suggested, but it came with a caveat of a huge naming rights deal, and officials are a long way from securing that. Still, the past several weeks have shown forward movement on several fronts, and the realization by Tampa business leaders that they need to bring a unified front of regional resources to the table shows an orderly and pragmatic vision to rally around.