Even before the season ended for the Tampa Bay Rays and amid grumbling over sagging attendance for a team in playoff contention, Rays ownership and local politicians were jockeying for position over where to build a new ballpark, despite the fact that the team has a contract to continue playing in Tropicana Field until 2027. Anywhere but St. Petersburg, many said, explaining that a central Tampa location would draw greater numbers and revenue.
Media commentators at both the national and local levels suggested the team might become so frustrated with the talks — currently at a stalemate — that it may seek a new home in Charlotte, NC or Las Vegas, NV. Tampa Bay just isn't a good baseball town, they say. But don't tell that to Mark Ferguson, owner of the iconic mecca of all things Rays, Fergs Sports Bar & Grill, located a short pitch away from the Trop and considered an unofficial fan headquarters for the team.
"I think that's totally wrong," Ferguson said. "The team's only been here 13 years. We've had 10 losing seasons, but the last three have been great. People are now rallying behind this team. Attendance has gone up three years in a row. Even with our economic downturn and unemployment, I think the fans are doing the best they can. In upcoming years, we'll see even better fan support."
Ferguson should know, he was instrumental in getting the Rays here to begin with. His "if you build it, they will come" dream of a sports bar is as emblematic of the team as the Trop is itself. He pointed out that similar commentary was heard recently in Seattle, where the Mariners now have a new stadium and solid fan attendance.
"We'll get it done, we'll get a new stadium," Ferguson asserted. "When you look at the percentage of population that attends games in the Major Leagues, we're in the top seven, we're not that bad."
Ferguson's optimism isn't limited to just the new stadium, he's also certain that it will be built on the Tropicana site despite the naysayers. It will have a retractable roof and be built in conjunction with a new convention center. His optimism, while infectious, is also grounded somewhat in reality.
"I've expressed this to the mayor and city council because I'm a lifelong St. Pete resident and I know the citizens don't want just another ballpark," he told Patch.com. "There's no tax base on that 85 acres right now, it's a vacant parking lot. If we can build a new stadium with public and private money, or a penny tax, there are various ways, and have a joint venture come in to build a convention center that will bring even more business to the city year-round, and we build more hotels and housing … all that goes right back on the tax rolls. It's a win-win for the city and a win-win for the Rays."