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Rays unveil Tropicana Field upgrades, vow better fan experience

Tribune staff
Published: December 3, 2013 Updated: December 4, 2013 at 05:54 AM
The Tampa Bay Rays today officially unveiled their 2014 improvements to Tropicana Field, including a 360-degree pedestrian walkway and other changes aimed at enhancing the fan experience. ARTISTS RENDERING

ST. PETERSBURG — Upgrades to Tropicana Field, including a 360-degree walkway around the playing field, are a sign that the Tampa Bay Rays are committed to making their stadium better for fans, even if it’s only for a few years, team executives said Tuesday.

The Rays are clearing out about 3,000 seats to make room for a walkway around the stadium’s lower bowl that will allow fans to view games from all sides. The glass-enclosed restaurant above center field also will be opened up with a patio offering broad views.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about what’s going to happen to the future of the team, and this is a statement by this organization saying we are committed to our fan base in the area and we know we’re going to be in this building for some number of years,” said Michael Kalt, the Rays’ senior vice president of development and business affairs.

But the renovations, at an estimated cost of $750,000, don’t necessarily indicate an ultimate change of heart for the Rays in their search for a new home.

“Even if we tomorrow had some sort of an agreement to build a new stadium, it takes three years to get into one,” Kalt said, speaking to a media group touring the renovations. “So we know we’re here for that long and probably longer.”

The purpose of the renovations is to bring Tropicana Field in line with many new or updated stadiums that offer fans the ability to leave their seats and walk around freely while watching the action.

Next season, fans who ascend the escalators to center field will find an open deck extending from the area where the enclosed Everglades BBQ Smokehouse restaurant had been.

A new bar and concession stand will go behind the patio, which will be partially covered by a new, dark, hitter’s background.

The improvements will allow fans to access the entire lower seating level from escalators in the main rotunda entrance, where two-thirds of them enter.

The new patio, the Rays Touch Tank and the Captain Morgan deck will all be connected.

“It really didn’t afford the fans that interaction with the game,” said Melanie Lenz, vice president of development for the Rays, pointing at the shell of the former Batter’s Eye restaurant space.

The project will be funded mostly by the Rays, with a small portion coming from the $1.3 million the St. Petersburg City Council recently approved, Kalt said.

The city money will be devoted primarily to necessary maintenance and infrastructure improvements, he said.

The city’s contract with the Rays requires St. Petersburg to make regular stadium improvements. The money comes from a capital repair fund made up of the first $250,000 of the city’s share of ticket fees and revenue from naming rights. The account has a balance of $2.3 million.

The Rays have been trying for several years to explore stadium sites outside St. Petersburg because of poor attendance. The team is under contract to play baseball at the Trop through 2027.

With more fans walking about in the stadium, the Rays also will look to reduce the appearance of empty seats by taking out several hundred in the upper deck with poor views and ticket sales.

Seating capacity will drop next season from 34,000 seats to about 31,000.

“Part of this was we were trying to create a much more intimate experience in the ballpark,” Kalt said, adding that home games will seem more crowded with the reduced number of seats.

The Rays also hope to fill more seats by allowing fans to buy tickets in advance on a card that can be used for any game rather than requiring them to preselect games. Ticket prices are discounted based on the number of prepurchased tickets.

The card will allow the Rays to track the attendance and spending habits of individual fans, providing data for marketing efforts, Kalt said.

“We really want to understand what our customer preferences are so we can make informed decisions about serving them better and getting them to come more often,” he said.

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