The Rays are one step closer to securing a new ballpark. A very small step, but a step nonetheless.
The team has received permission from the St. Petersburg City Council to look for new stadium sites in the greater Tampa area, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.
St. Pete City Council approves deal in 5-3 vote to let #Rays look for stadium sites in Hillsborough and Pinellas— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) January 14, 2016
Tropicana Field, home of the Rays since they joined the league in 1998, is located in St. Petersburg, a good 20 minutes from downtown Tampa. Rush-hour traffic makes the ride even longer.
The Rays have been trying to secure a new ballpark for years now, and at one point owner Stu Sternberg said the team would likely have to be sold and relocated if they couldn't find a new stadium. The city council's approval was needed before the club could consider leaving the Trop.
“Major League Baseball appreciates this step forward taken by the St. Petersburg City Council and remains fully supportive of Stu Sternberg’s vision to bring this stadium process to conclusion," said MLB in a statement. "Mr. Sternberg’s patience and persistence throughout the franchise’s long-standing efforts have illustrated his commitment to the fans of the region. We look forward to further progress in the weeks and months ahead as the Rays strive to ensure the future of the franchise with a first-class ballpark in the region.”
The team can now begin looking for a site, and should they find one, they then have to go through the process of securing financing, choosing a design and building the facility. Obviously that's a process that will take several years, but at least now the wheels are in motion.
Despite contending for most of the past decade, the Rays have consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in attendance. They drew 1,287,054 fans last season, dead last in the AL. Moving closer to downtown Tampa would surely boost attendance somewhat.
The team's current lease runs through 2027, though it can terminate it in 2018. The Rays would be required to make annual payments of upward of $24 million, however.