Tampa Bay: The City So Nice It's Actually Not A City But A Collection Of Municipalities

It has sports, whether it likes them or not.

A thing you should know about Tampa, Florida is that one of its annual college football bowl games was recently renamed after José Gaspar, a legendary Spanish pirate who almost certainly did not exist — and that a reasonable person’s reaction to this renaming might have been “oh, good, finally it sounds respectable.”

Yes, the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, played at Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is a major step up for the postseason event variously known in the past as the magicJack Bowl, the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, and finally, when no brand would touch it, simply the St. Petersburg Bowl. The event, at one time the lesser of the region’s two chain restaurant-themed bowls, was previously played in one of the most shopworn, dismal venues in all of North American professional sports: Tropicana Field.

Tropicana Field, located a bay away from the center of population and anything interesting in the region, was built on spec in the late 1980s as the Florida Suncoast Dome in a bid to lure an existing Major League Baseball franchise to Florida’s Gulf Coast. It almost worked, with both the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants seriously considering moves to the venue. They didn’t -- though the Giants made it as far as announcing a move, only to have it rejected by National League owners. Of course, shortly after this, the boom in retro-styled stadiums was launched by Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and by the time a franchise finally did arrive in 1998, their home -- by then renamed Tropicana Field — seemed terribly dated, like a house built during a real estate bubble and sold for pennies on the dollar years later.

The team that moved in wasn’t much better — for the first decade of their existence, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were the worst team in baseball, averaging nearly 100 losses a season, the only interest coming from the “surviving Temptations at the State Fair” appearances of well-past-their-prime stars like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Vinny Castilla, Greg Vaughn and Jose Canseco. They were wretched.

Then, in 2008, a funny thing happened. The team ditched the awkward late-’90s vibe of the Devil Rays’ name and scheme in favor of a sunshine-themed rebrand as simply the “Rays”, despite still playing indoors. The team — led by future Chicago Cubs World Series-winning manager Joe Maddon — surged to a surprising American League pennant, eventually losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. And they’ve stayed good! Since 2008, the Rays’ winning percentage has only been exceeded by the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — arguably the sports’ four marquee franchises and an additional huge-market team. Surely fans have flocked to the dome to see this team, right?

Nope!

Last season, despite a very respectable 92-70 record, the Rays drew only 1.15 million fans, only beating out fellow Floridian fan-antagonists Miami. The Giants, would-be tenants of the dismal dome? They drew over 3 million in an utterly forgettable 73-win season, playing in a fan-friendly, privately-funded stadium in a place near where people actually live and want to go. This isn’t a criticism of Rays fans (though there may not be many; large swaths of the area’s population owe their allegiance to the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, or other teams from places that people retire to Florida from) — it’s a criticism of owners who’ve spent decades hoping to have a stadium built for them by municipalities who don’t seem to care, rather than building one themselves, creating a good fan experience, and making them care.

So, they’ve found a clever new grift! Just this month, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announced one of the most audacious relocation plans in sports history -- moving the team to Montreal for half the season, while staying in Tampa the other half. Can’t get one stadium built? Ask for two! They can profit off naming rights, seat licenses, construction kickbacks and more in two places while only paying for one bottom-tier payroll team. 

Congratulations, Tampa: one of your teams is a true pioneer.

Tune in to the podcast this week for two native Tampans -- Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub) of SBNation and Shutdown Fullcast and Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) of Louisville’s ESPN 93.9 The Ville — as we discuss these topics and more, including:

  • The Great Orange Juice Boycott of 1976, and the one brave Buccaneers quarterback (and future legendary college football head coach) who’d buck it for a profit

  • How you really shouldn’t draft Bo Jackson when he’s explicitly told you not to do so 

  • The legendary cheapness of original Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse

  • How the Tampa Bay Lightning set a regular-season record for points, then got swept in the first round, but why we can’t really blame them

  • Bold plans to save the Rays?

As always, we’re available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Omny.fm and elsewhere, and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @CircleSevenPod. Thanks for listening and reading!

— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)