Winning Time: Pro Sports Boom In The Tampa Area Is Lifting Spirits And Setting The Bar High
Courtesy Tampa Sports Authority – Pirate Beauty
Raymond James Stadium, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have provided some light during a dark year, will host Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg region stands among Florida’s idyllic destinations, known for its sparkling beaches, gorgeous sunsets and signature tourist attractions. Sports development for the most part has grown in tandem with the market’s big league teams over the past 25 years.
On both fronts, it’s proved to be a winning combination of late. In September, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup title in 16 years, competing in a bubble format at Edmonton’s Rogers Place after the pandemic put the 2019-20 season on ice for five months.
In St. Pete, the Tampa Bay Rays reached the 2020 World Series after playing a shortened 60-game regular season. They lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games at neutral site Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. At presstime, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one win away from reaching Super Bowl LV in their hometown under ageless quarterback Tom Brady.
Even the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a member of the USL Championship soccer league owned by the Rays, advanced to the title game before USL officials canceled the Oct. 31 match due to COVID-19 cases on the Rowdies team. Toward the end of the 2020 season, the Rowdies played a few matches with limited fans at Al Lang Stadium.
PROVIDING SOME GOOD NEWS
Across the region, the four teams lifted spirits through the doom and gloom of the lengthy pandemic.
“All the teams in the market had tremendous success,” said Bill Walsh, the Rays’ vice president of strategy and development. “It was wonderful to watch the Lightning’s run and we almost got there ourselves. In many ways, it picked us up as a community.”
To keep up with emerging trends tied to the fan experience, both Raymond James Stadium, where the Bucs play, and Amalie Arena, home of the Lightning and a leading concert venue, have gone through $100 million-plus renovations over the past decade.
Most recently, both buildings, as well as Tropicana Field, the Rays’ stadium, have gone through extensive COVID upgrades, driven in part by the region’s effort to keep tourism dollars flowing despite the restrictions across the country that have made it difficult to generate revenue.
Florida, a state marked by fewer restrictions than most of the country, does not have a mandate requiring face coverings in public. Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed venues to reopen at full capacity, despite the state recording some of the highest rates of coronavirus.
In the Tampa Bay region, venues and public officials were prudent as they started to reopen for business in the fall, going with partial attendance in the range of 22% to 23% for NFL games, which amounted to about 16,000 fans attending Buccaneers contests.
Raymond James Stadium served as the model for all area venues post-pandemic.
“From start to end, masks are required,” said Eric Hart, president and CEO of the Tampa Sports Authority, governing body of Raymond James Stadium. “The biggest challenge that buildings have faced is fighting the whole mask issue. We’ve done pretty well.”
The 65,890-seat stadium, site of Super Bowl LV, will have attendance capped at 22,000, which includes 7,500 vaccinated health care workers with complimentary tickets to the game. The NFL determined that number in working with the authority and local health officials, Hart said.
In Hillsborough County, where Tampa is situated, local leaders pushed for the stadium, arena and Steinbrenner Field, the New York Yankees’ spring training facility, to receive millions of dollars in CARES Act funding to help pay for touchless technology, improved air flow and other protective measures against coronavirus.
“Our county officials took the position that they wanted us to keep people employed,” Hart said. “We had several thousand people working at every NFL game, trying to do as many events as we possibly can, safely. We’re happy that our health department has indicated there have not been any high contacts coming out of our venues.”
A NEW TEAM IN TOWN
In downtown Tampa, Amalie Arena added a second tenant during the pandemic. The Toronto Raptors, Canada’s NBA team, decided to play a good portion of their 2021 home games in Tampa as part of a mini-bubble format to cut down on potential spread of the virus from travel between two countries.
They set up temporary residency at the new JW Marriott Water Street Tampa, a 500-room lodge that opened in December across the street from the arena. The Raptors converted a large ballroom into two practice courts. Other hotel spaces were made into a locker room, weight and conditioning area and coaches’ offices.
The Raptors considered three cities before selecting Tampa. For the Lightning, it helped that team President Steve Griggs was among the first 15 employees hired by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment back in 1994. The Canada native retains strong connections with the ownership of the Raptors and Leafs.
“The setup for them was perfect,” Griggs said.
Toronto played a few home games at Amalie Arena with crowds limited to 4,000 before officials hit the pause button on fans attending games due to new spikes in COVID cases in January. The switch came just a few days before the Lightning’s first regular-season home game.
Together, the Lightning, public officials and the team’s three health care partners made that difficult decision, recognizing there will be additional losses in event-related revenue. They hope to reopen the arena with fans for NBA and NHL games by March, team executives said.
Courtesy Toronto Raptors – Mind The Chandelier
The Toronto Raptors, in town for the NBA season to eliminate the need to cross the border during the pandemic, have practice courts in a hotel ballroom across from Amalie Arena.
Lightning owner Jeff Vinik sees the long-term play, revolving around a hot team and the Water Street District, the $3.5 billion mixed-use development next to the arena arena. He’s spearheading the 40-acre district with Strategic Property Partners, whose investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Nine buildings are now under construction. The first of three phases, encompassing three residential complexes, should be completed by early 2022. The vision is to have 3,000 to 4,000 people living in the district, Griggs said.
The Residences at the Tampa Edition, the first residential/hotel project, opened a sales office in November, with 37 condominiums starting at $2 million, according to a story in the Tampa Bay Times.
All told, the district is projected to take up 9 million square feet by the time the project is completed in 2027. It is designed to strengthen Tampa Bay’s emergence as a sports and entertainment bulkhead with bars, restaurants, office space, residential and three hotels, including the JW Marriott.
“It took a bold vision and the right resources, plus a commitment from the city and county and Jeff to continue to do great things in this community,” Griggs said. “It was already sitting here and just needed someone to connect all the key pillars.”
Griggs has seen downtown Tampa evolve after the Lightning hired him in 2010, five months after Vinik acquired the team. The old Channelside Mall near the arena had fallen on hard times, and coming out of the recession, the venue had fallen behind on fan amenities.
“It was just the arena with 40 acres of barren parking,” he said. “We had the convention center, the history center, aquarium and the port where the cruise ships come in. The bones were there; it was just a matter of building everything in between and turning it into a (true) district.”
Sparkman Wharf, the initial piece of development, replaced the old mall and opened in November 2018. It’s designed as a casual pop-up-style environment with local chefs running street food destinations in shipping containers, plus a craft beer garden, office lofts and lawn space to accommodate live music and fitness events. Sparkman Wharf’s retail and office space is just starting to open, project officials said.
Over the past 20 years, mixed-use projects tied to sports venues have been a defining trend across North America. In Tampa, the point of difference is the district sits right on the city’s waterfront, providing an authentic coastal vibe unlike its landlocked counterparts, Griggs said.
“There’s a real sense of health and wellness because we are on the water,” he said. “It’s different than up north. There’s a real focus on brand ethos and turning Water Street into a district and we’re a part of it.”
Amalie Arena, after going through extensive renovations, has driven most of the development, due in part to the Lightning’s success on the ice. The team has sold out 250 consecutive games at the 20,500-capacity venue. All told, 1.8 million people annually attend events at the 25-year-old arena, including concerts and family shows.
LAB FOR INNOVATIONS
(Courtesy Tampa Bay Rays) – Raymond On The Road
Raymond, the Tampa Rays mascot, is part of a new fan engagement campaign built around a traveling merchandise trailer.
Across the bay, there’s a much different dynamic going on with the Rays in terms of the facility equation.
They’ve been trying for the better part of 15 years to build a new ballpark to replace 31-year-old Tropicana Field, which stands as Major League Baseball’s only indoor facility with a fixed roof.
The Rays’ lease at the city-owned stadium runs through the 2027 season and they remain committed to pursuing a proposal to split home games at new open-air ballparks in St. Petersburg and Montreal, Walsh said.
The team announced the concept in June 2019 and there has been no movement to build new stadiums in either market. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has dismissed the idea, stating the Rays must adhere to the lease terms before considering a move elsewhere.
Over the past few years, the Rays have used The Trop, where average paid attendance has declined over the past decade from 23,000 to 14,700 in 2019, as a laboratory for innovation and experimentation. Two years ago, prior to the pandemic, they were among the first teams in big league sports to go completely cashless in-venue.
“Once you train fans and they get used to being in a cash-free environment, there are a lot of interesting things you can do with mobile ordering and digital wallets and fan rewards and loyalty and all of that,” Walsh said. “We’re going to be moving in that space this season.”
Advancing to the World Series provided a nice bump in merchandise sales for the Rays for what was otherwise a “pretty devastating” year financially for the organization without fans attending games, he said.
The Rays, in conjunction with Rank & Rally, Levy’s merchandise group, reopened the team store at Tropicana Field in August. During the postseason, there were long lines of fans standing 6 feet apart outside the doors waiting to buy the latest gear, Walsh said.
“There was a lot of hunger in the community to just interact with the club and the brand,” he said.
The retail demand led to the Rays launching a new concept called “Rays and Rowdies on the Road.”
The focus is on fan engagement, tied to a new website and a branded merchandise trailer set up over lunch hour in downtown Tampa and the new pier in St. Petersburg, among other sites. Player appearances, plus Raymond, the Rays’ furry blue mascot, are part of the retail caravan.
“We started off with tents, doing it as quickly as we could, and then got the trailer toward the end of the postseason,” Walsh said. “We did about a half-dozen events in December and into New Year’s Eve. We’ll ramp back up as we get into February and the start of the season.”
Overall, sports executives forecast continued growth for Tampa-St. Petersburg as an entertainment destination.
“What we’re creating here with our district and the whole region itself is attractive,” Griggs said. “We have another crack at the College Football Playoff, WrestleMania 37, Frozen Four and Women’s Final Four. Our building alone is booked (most years) for an NCAA event.”