Here’s a stat that always blows my mind: Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, is the third oldest ballpark in the National League. It opened in 1995 and only Wrigley Field (1914) and Dodger Stadium (1962) have been around longer in the Senior Circuit. How did that happen? Didn’t the Rockies join the league like last week? Good gravy.
Anyway, baseball’s stadium boom has seen 16 of the 30 current ballparks open this century, and in all likelihood two new ballparks will open within the decade. The Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays are actively working to secure new stadiums and both are desperately needed. RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg are not fit for major league franchises.
“Both Oakland and Tampa need new facilities. It’s kind of beyond debate at this point,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in October. “Oakland is probably critical, just in terms of the condition of the ballpark. Whatever you want to say about Tampa, it’s playable for right now and they have a lease that goes through 2027. Oakland’s in a critical situation. We need to find a way to get new ballparks built in those two cities or — particularly in the case of Oakland — we’ve had to open up the opportunity to explore other locations just because it’s dragged on so long.”
As the commissioner noted, the Rays’ lease at the Trop runs through the 2027 season. They have some time to figure out their long-term ballpark situation. The A’s situation is a bit more dire. Their lease at the Coliseum runs only through 2024. Considering how much time is needed to plan and actually build a stadium, they have to figure it out their ballpark situation soon.
With that in mind, here’s where the A’s and Rays currently stand in their pursuit of a new ballpark, and how they got here.
The A’s played in Philadelphia from 1901-54 and Kansas City from 1955-67 before moving to Oakland and what was then the two-year-old Oakland Coliseum. It is MLB‘s fourth oldest ballpark behind Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium. The Athletics have explored new stadium options since the early 2000s.
On Nov. 15, 2006, A’s owner Lew Wolff told reporters, “Today marks the beginning of a new era in A’s baseball in the Bay Area.” That day Wolff and the A’s announced their intention to move the team 20 miles south to Fremont, and build a new 32,000-seat ballpark. Cisco Systems Inc. had already agreed to a 30-year deal for the new ballpark’s naming rights.
Two years and two months later, the project was dead after being met by opposition from Fremont residents who questioned the new stadium’s economic benefits, and expressed concerns about traffic and property taxes. The $1.8 billion project included retail space and townhouses in the areas surrounding the ballpark.
“I thought the overwhelming pluses of having our A’s in your community for the next 40 years and longer would have resonated in a more positive manner even with those who might perceive some negatives,” Wolff said at the time.
In 2009 and 2010, the City of San Jose attempted to woo the Athletics, but the San Francisco Giants hold territorial rights on Santa Clara County and wouldn’t budge. San Jose’s attempts to lure the A’s went nowhere as did a proposed 35,000-seat ballpark in the Eastlake neighborhood of Oakland in 2017. The city later sued MLB, claiming there was a “blatant conspiracy” to keep baseball out of San Jose, and eventually the Supreme Court rejected the city’s bid for the team.
In March 2017 the NFL‘s Raiders announced they would move out of the Oakland Coliseum and into a new stadium in Las Vegas for the 2020 season. That happened five years after the NBA‘s Warriors announced they would leave Oakland for a new arena in San Francisco for the 2019-20 season. Soon after the Raiders announcement, the A’s debuted their #RootedInOakland advertising campaign to show their commitment to building a new park locally.
“Our priority this year was to highlight our amazing city,” A’s team president Dave Kaval said in a statement at the time. “Our players loved shooting (promotions) in Oakland and it was great to have fans watch and participate. From our downtown light pole branding to a large outdoor billboard presence, our fans and community will know that the A’s are truly Rooted in Oakland.”
That brings us to the A’s current ballpark pursuit. In Nov. 2018, the team announced plans to build a new 34,000-seat ballpark at the Howard Terminal site at the Port of Oakland, roughly five miles north of the Coliseum. The A’s also announced their intentions to purchase the current Coliseum site and build housing, among other things.
“This design will allow us to blur the boundaries of a traditional ballpark and integrate into the surrounding neighborhood,” Kaval said about the Howard Terminal project. “… We’re building more than a ballpark here. We’re building a new neighborhood in this part of the city. We’ve always liked the idea of a waterfront, downtown location for a ballpark, with the 81 days that baseball provides for home games. It really is the best, most conducive environment for success both on and off the field.”
Progress with the Howard Terminal project has been slow. The project includes a $1 billion privately financed ballpark, plus another $12 billion in private investment for residential and commercial space in a waterfront neighborhood. The A’s are also seeking $855 million in public funds for infrastructure and to develop land around the ballpark.
Last July, the Oakland City Council approved a non-binding term sheet for the Howard Terminal project, though it did not include the $855 million. Kaval said the team would not accept the term sheet as presented before the vote. The County of Alameda approved a non-binding term sheet in October. Non-binding means the city and county can walk away at any time, but politically, it’s difficult to change those votes once they’ve been cast.
“We’re not asking you to be in the sports business, we’re asking you to be in the affordable housing and public parks business along with us, to be our hometown heroes,” Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf said to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors prior to their vote. The Howard Terminal project took another step forward last month, when a required environmental impact report was approved.
“Tonight’s Planning Commission recommendation to send the Final Environmental Impact Report onto the City Council for certification is a huge win for our entire region and puts Oakland one step closer to building a landmark waterfront district with the highest environmental standards,” Schaaf said in a statement after the environmental impact report was approved.
While all that was going on, Kaval toured Las Vegas and Portland, two potential relocation cities, and wasn’t shy about it. He posted about his visits on social media, ostensibly to pressure the city and county into approving the A’s term sheet. MLB gave the club permission to pursue relocation options last year because the Howard Terminal project had met resistance.
Soon after the county vote, the A’s placed a bid on a potential ballpark site on the Las Vegas Strip, according to the Las Vegas Journal-Review. This does not mean the Athletics are moving to Las Vegas. The bid can be withdrawn or the land can be treated as an investment. It is another way for the A’s to apply pressure to get the Howard Terminal project done on their terms though.
“Las Vegas is a viable alternative for a major league club, and there are other viable alternatives that I haven’t even turned the A’s loose to even exploring at this point,” Manfred said in July, following the city’s vote. “Thinking about this as a bluff is a mistake. This is the decision point for Oakland.”
Even after the environmental impact report vote, the Howard Terminal project still has several more hurdles to clear. The Athletics need to firm up the financial details and reach a development agreement, which ABC 7’s Casey Pratt says could happen early this year. Then a binding term sheet must be approved by the city, the county, and the Port of Oakland. Those votes are still a ways off.
What happens if the Howard Terminal project doesn’t come together? The A’s could follow the Raiders to Las Vegas, relocate somewhere else entirely, or pursue other ballpark sites in the Bay Area. Last year Oakland native and former Athletics pitcher Dave Stewart submitted a $115 million bid to purchase the city’s portion of the Coliseum site with the intention of developing it, and possibly even building a new stadium.
To have their new stadium ready for Opening Day 2025, the Athletics need to finalize their ballpark plans this year, realistically. That leaves a little more than two years for planning and construction, and keep in mind COVID and supply chain issues could delay construction. If this drags into 2023, the A’s may need to pursue a new lease at the Coliseum (even just a short-term lease until a new stadium is ready), which is something no one wants.
“The affirmative vote is a positive step. The A’s will continue to pursue the Oakland project as well as the Las Vegas alternative,” Manfred said following the county vote in October.
Tampa Bay Rays
Tropicana Field is quite a bit older than the (Devil) Rays franchise. Opened in 1990, what was then known as the Florida Suncoast Dome was used to try to lure the White Sox from Chicago, the Mariners from Seattle, and the Giants from San Francisco. Tampa also tried to land an expansion franchise in 1993 (the year MLB welcomed the Rockies and Florida Marlins) before getting the Rays in 1998 (the expansion franchise was originally awarded in 1995).
The Trop is more than 20 miles from downtown Tampa, and if you want to catch a game after work, you’re making that trip in rush hour traffic. The ballpark’s location has contributed greatly to the team’s poor attendance. The Rays averaged only 14,552 fans per game in 2019, the last non-COVID season, and have drawn more than 20,000 fans per game in only four seasons (their inaugural 1998 season and 2008-10, their first run of on-field success).
Efforts to land a new stadium began in earnest in 2007. That November the Rays unveiled plans for a 34,000-seat, $450 million waterfront ballpark in St. Petersburg, at the site of Al Lang Field. “This will be a unique progressive design. This will not be an easy thing to do,” owner Stuart Sternberg said at the time. The proposal was withdrawn two years later due to local opposition.
Sternberg and the Rays have sought a ballpark location in Tampa proper since 2009, though the club’s lease ties them to the Trop and St. Petersburg through 2027. By 2014, Sternberg had started discussions about moving the franchise to Montreal, and by the end of that year, he said he would likely sell the team if they were unable to get a new ballpark within a decade.
“The chances of me owning this team in 2023 if we don’t have a new stadium are probably nil,” Sternberg said in Dec. 2014. “Somebody else will take it and move it. It’s not a threat, just the reality. I won’t be sitting here 10 years from now waiting it out to move the team.”
In Feb. 2018, Sternberg announced Ybor City, a historic Latin neighborhood near downtown Tampa, was the club’s preferred site for a new ballpark. “Raybor City” signs were passed around to show support, and the proposed stadium came with a $900 million price tag — reportedly it would be financed with a 50/50 split between private and public funds — a translucent dome, and 25,000 or so seats.
“Ybor City is authentically Tampa Bay,” Sternberg said at the time. “It represents the finest opportunity for Major League Baseball to thrive in this region for generations to come. This is where we want to be playing baseball.”
The Ybor City project fell apart in less than a year. St. Petersburg gave the Rays a three-year window in Jan. 2016 to negotiate a new ballpark deal in downtown Tampa and the team simply ran out of time to finalize plans with Ybor City. Sternberg announced the project was dead in Dec. 2018, at baseball’s annual Winter Meetings.
“We spent thousands of hours and many millions of dollars to make our vision of the ballpark a reality, a ballpark that would bring the excitement of Major League Baseball and stimulate an energetic and engaged community in the city and surrounding area,” Sternberg said. “The result certainly wasn’t due to lack of effort by any of the parties involved. And while I’m widely disappointed by the result, I’m not discouraged … I want to thank everybody that’s been a part of this project, especially the Ybor community who welcomed us with open arms.”
Six months after closing the door on the Ybor City project, Sternberg and the Rays went public with their two-city Montreal/Tampa plan. The team would host spring training in Florida and play the first two months of the regular season either at the Trop or at a new ballpark in downtown Tampa, then finish the season at a new ballpark in Montreal. MLB gave the Rays its blessing to pursue the two-city plan.
“There is no commitment on the part of the owners to ultimately approve a plan,” Manfred said at the time. “The permission that was granted was simply a permission to explore this alternative in an effort to strengthen a franchise that has performed great on the field but continues to be pretty limited from an economic perspective. I think the Rays still are interested in having a new facility in Tampa. The limitations of the current facility in terms of the atmosphere and the location are pretty well known.”
Sternberg and the Rays touted the two-city plan over the next two years and change — the club intended to promote the plan with signage at Tropicana Field during the 2021 postseason before realizing it was a bad idea — up until last month, when MLB officially pulled the plug. Despite that, Sternberg insisted “partial seasons are going to be the wave of the future in professional sports.”
The split-city plan was, frankly, ridiculous and unworkable. It was aggressively fan and player unfriendly — who wants to root for a team that permanently plays half its home games somewhere else? — and a transparent attempt to leverage Montreal and Tampa against each other. Whichever city blinked and gave the Rays a ballpark first would get the team full-time.
“This is the Rays’ way to mitigate the damages to the city while they transition to a permanent home in Montreal,” former St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster said in a statement in June 2019. “… The Rays want a wife and a mistress, and believe that everyone should be fine with that. That’s not how this works. It’s time to show the Rays the door right now. They don’t deserve St. Pete.”
It’s a bit surprising MLB pulled the plug on the two-city plan rather than the Rays themselves or one of the two cities. It’s possible the MLB Players Association indicated there was no chance they’d agree to it during the ongoing collective bargaining agreement talks, or perhaps MLB valued having Montreal as a full-time relocation option (for the A’s?) or expansion city in the future. It seems the two-city idea was squashed because MLB has bigger plans for Montreal.
With the two-city plan dead, the Rays are essentially back to square one, with no irons in the fire. They could continue to seek a new ballpark site in downtown Tampa — “We’ve concluded that it’s next to impossible that full-season baseball can succeed in Tampa Bay today,” team president Brian Auld said in October — or pursue relocation, either to Montreal or another city entirely. Whatever comes next, they’re starting at the very beginning yet again. The A’s are a little further down the road thanks to the Howard Terminal project, though even that still has a ways to go to become a reality.