Rays head back to the drawing board as Ybor ballpark plan axed

Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise the Tampa Bay Rays have maintained they are committed to finding a new home in the local area despite admitting they are at “two strikes” following the decision to abandon a project for a new stadium in Ybor City.

In July, the club unveiled plans to create the most intimate ballpark in MLB. The headline feature of the Populous-designed ballpark (pictured) was a translucent roof accounting for 30 per cent of the project cost and fully enclosing the facility.

The stadium would have had 28,216 fixed seats and a total capacity of 30,842. It was projected to cost $892m (£708m/€785m) and had been earmarked for completion on Opening Day of the 2023 MLB season.

However, these plans have stalled significantly since July and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg yesterday (Tuesday) conceded the Ybor City vision is no longer viable. Sternberg said the Rays will not request an extension of a three-year window with the City of St. Petersburg to explore alternative ballpark sites to its current Tropicana Field home. This window was due to expire on December 31, but multiple question marks over financing, costs, timetable and site control remained for the Ybor City project.

With the Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field due to expire after the 2027 season, Sternberg said the team will now start the process afresh, but with a sole focus on the Tampa area. “While the momentum and progress are real, we are not close at all to a workable framework,” Sternberg said, according to the Tampa Bay Times newspaper. “We’ve had a long time. Three years is a long time.

“While I am wildly disappointed by the result, I’m not discouraged. I’m firmly committed to helping the Rays remain and thrive in Tampa Bay for decades and generations to come. Major League Baseball is a large part of what defines Tampa Bay as a major-league region and I continue to be enthusiastic about finding a way forward.”

Under the proposed Ybor City deal, the Rays were projected to pay around $450m with the Tampa Sports Authority offering 50% of funding, not to exceed $475m. However, these figures were far from certain with Sternberg having previously proposed a contribution of $150m before stating they would pay more.

Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred weighed in on the issue, expressing his frustration at the situation. According to MLB.com, Manfred wrote that the proposal included so few specifics about financing that “it is very difficult for me to take any position at this time.”

He added: “I am puzzled by the decision to inject me publicly into the process with only 20 days remaining in the three-year negotiating period before the Rays have to provide a response to the City of St. Petersburg.”

In October, the Rays moved to clarify that they were completely committed to the Ybor plans after acquiring United Soccer League team Tampa Bay Rowdies and taking control of its Al Lang Stadium. The acquisition led to speculation that the Rays may be seeking alternative ballpark plans.

The team had also failed with a previous 2007-08 effort to develop a stadium on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront, and Sternberg admitted yesterday that the Rays are “at two strikes right now.”

Sternberg is adamant that the Rays have no plans to leave the area before the end of their current lease deal in 2027. However, he admitted that a new stadium will now not be ready any time before 2024 meaning they will have to start thinking about where they could play come 2028, when the team could potentially relocate.

“So we’ve got a couple of years to figure it out,” Sternberg said. “We’ve got to know where the 2028 season will definitively be played over the next few years. We had a long window to get to that point, meaning 15 years, and that’s elapsed now we’ve only got a few years left.”

Image: Populous