According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays’ lease in their downtown Tampa merchandise store is not being renewed. Friday will be the last day the store will be open, as the landlord of the building is renovating the plaza and the store will no longer have the space to operate.
Contrary to the gloom and doom and lazy conclusions that this means the future of the franchise in Tampa Bay is in doubt, closing the Rays downtown Tampa merch store is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it allows for increased marketing and fanbase growth.
The Rays downtown Tampa store opened in August 2007, when the Rays were still the Devil Rays and awareness of the brand was low. The merch store was seen as a way to increase visibility across the bridge and let people in Tampa easily buy and interact with Rays products.
The team is leaving the Park Tower building with awareness at an all-time high and the team gaining momentum towards their seventh winning season in the last 10 years. People are aware of the brand and root for the brand, even if they don’t see the product in person regularly.
Which is why the Rays would be best to move the store further from Tropicana Field. The Rays should bring their store to the areas of Tampa, Hillsborough County, and beyond that don’t frequent Tropicana Field due to traffic and distance. There the Rays have a chance to start over with a new store connecting to fans in new ways.
The first area I would look at for a new location would be near the University of South Florida, perhaps in or near the University Mall. With redevelopment of the mall property coming soon, the Rays could get in the location early, using it to spread awareness and products to college-age fans and perhaps increasing a partnership with USF. Another benefit is a Rays store near USF could also cater to lower income parts of Tampa. These areas aren’t massive ticket buyers, but may buy hats and shirts if the store was in their backyard. A third benefit would be the use of several sports bars in this area for game watching events.
The second area the Rays should consider is New Tampa. Located east of I-75 and north of USF, driving from New Tampa to Tropicana Field for a weekday evening game takes at least an hour and half. According to wikipedia, there are 22,000 people in this growing and developing area. There are also large corporate headquarters such as USAA in the area. New Tampa is middle class housing developments and big box stores. A Rays store here would increase awareness and keep the Rays in mind of fans who, despite still being in Hillsborough County, are closer to the Orlando Magic than the Tampa Bay Rays.
A third option for the Rays would be Wesley Chapel. Wesley Chapel is north of Tampa, just across the county line in Pasco County. According to wikipedia, there are 44,000 people in Wesley Chapel. According to Google Maps, they are 42 miles from Tropicana Field. Depending on traffic, leaving Wesley Chapel at 5pm may mean a 2 hour drive to St. Petersburg to see the Rays. The Rays need to tap into the estimated $75,000 per capita income of Wesley Chapel. With Tropicana Field too difficult to move, moving the Rays store to the area is the next best option.
Each of these locations could host a Rays bus for group travel to the Trop. Two hour drives go easier with occasional hosts such as Stu Sternberg or Fred McGriff doing a Q&A with bus riders. They have an opportunity to make the trip a fun experience.
In 2007, downtown Tampa was devoid of Rays fans. The Rays merch store was a way to stake a claim in a new frontier. Now, with the store being forced to move and Tampa fully ensconced in Rays fandom, the team should jump the merch store further into uncharted territory.