MLB COO DuPuy: Tampa Bay Rays need a new ballpark

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Even before Tropicana Field hosted its first World Series game, Major League Baseball insisted the Tampa Bay Rays must get a new stadium.

"I think they need a new ballpark here. Absolutely," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer.

Tropicana Field opened in 1990 and already was outmoded when the baseball team moved in eight years later. Tampa Bay announced plans last November for a 34,000-seat, open-air stadium with a retractable, sail-like covering to be built on the site of Al Lang Field, where spring training games have been played for decades. But there was little community support and plans for a public referendum this year on the $450 million project were withdrawn in June.

"Whether that plan gets revived or a different plan gets revived, I'd like to see their success this year be a catalyst not only for increased attendance next year but for a renewed discussion about a new ballpark,' DuPuy said Wednesday night before the Rays played Philadelphia in the World Series opener.

And he acknowledged financing could become more difficult with the stock and financial markets in turmoil.

Economics is on the minds of baseball executives everywhere.

Although MLB doesn't plan staff cutbacks, as the NBA does, the sport is examining spending with new aggressiveness.

"We are looking at every initiative and taking a look at either whether it can be scaled back or whether or not we can defer it," DuPuy said. "We will look at every program and make a determination."

But Tony Petitti, president of the MLB Network that launches Jan. 1, said he didn't expect the economy to have much impact on the launch, despite a slowing advertising market. And Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president for business, said not one of the sport's 20 national sponsors has asked for relief from their contracts.

Baseball projects revenue this year at a record $6.5 billion, DuPuy said, up from $6.075 billion in 2007. Still, commissioner Bud Selig has cautioned teams to be careful with ticket prices next season, and finances will be a topic when owners meet next month.

"The national economy is going to have an effect on everything," Selig said. "The economy is in such a way that it's going to have a pervasive effect on everything we do and on all our lives. I don't think there's any doubt about that."

The Rays averaged just 22,370 fans during the regular season, 12th among the 14 AL teams but up from their 2007 average of 17,131.

"I don't blame them. You watch the team lose for 10 straight years, as a fan, I wouldn't want to come to every single game, either," said James Shields, the Rays' Game 2 starter. "Now the second half, I think the crowd started showing up and starting to believe. I know there was a game in the middle of the week where we had 10,000 fans. We were disappointed, because we were in first place, and we're beating the Yankees, the Red Sox, the whole American League East, and we're wondering why they're not coming in."

New ballparks have been a key to baseball's boom over the past 15 years. The Yankees and Mets open new stadiums in April, and the Minnesota Twins have started construction on an open-air stadium scheduled for completion in 2010.

Miami and Oakland are the next two projects.

The Florida Marlins reached an agreement in February for a $515 million, retractable-roof stadium at the site of the Orange Bowl in Miami's Little Havana. The 37,000-seat ballpark would open for the 2011 season.

The Oakland A's announced a plan in November 2006 for a 32,000- to 35,000-seat ballpark to be named Cisco Field in Fremont. But the opening already has been pushed back a year to 2012, and construction hasn't started.

"In Miami, we think we have a deal in place, and we continue to work on finalizing the documents," DuPuy said. "The team does not have to go to market [for financing] for almost 18 months. There's a capacity in the hotel tax to support the development of the stadium, so I think the economic situation should not in fact impact getting the ballpark done in Miami. In places like St. Petersburg or Oakland where a financing plan has not yet been put in place, then, obviously, it's more complicated and rate structures and whatever are going to have to be taken into account as they develop a plan."

MLB's 30 clubs combined to draw 78.6 million fans this season, down 1 percent and ending a streak of four straight record seasons. Because the Yankees and Mets will be moving into smaller ballparks, it will be difficult for baseball to sustain attendance at its current level.

"That's a fairly significant nut to overcome, but I wouldn't throw in the towel yet," DuPuy said.