Tampa’s Derby Lane Poker Room: Future Home of Baseball?

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One of the most popular destinations for poker in the state of Florida is the Derby Lane Greyhound Track, located in St. Petersburg. The fifth largest live poker rooms in the state (generating over $8.8 million in gross revenues for fiscal year 2015-16), the poker has been somewhat overshadowing what was supposed to be the draw of people, the greyhound racing schedule and horse racing simulcasts offered by the track. But could there be a new reason to head to the poker room soon?

The Tampa Bay TimesJohn Romano is thinking outside of the box, at the minimum, in a column he penned earlier this month. Romano looks at the situation that the local Major League Baseball franchise, the Tampa Bay Rays, finds themselves in as to building a new home in West Central Florida. “There is one important factor (for the Rays) that cannot be overlooked (as to a new site),” Romano writes. “The perfect site does not exist.”

Romano points out that the Rays would love to move to a downtown Tampa ballpark (the “downtown ballpark” fad hasn’t yet faded in baseball, where the new construction can have all the amenities of a new stadium but can include enough idiosyncrasies – such as non-symmetrical outfield grounds, smaller foul areas, etc. – to make them unique). The problem with that, as noted by Romano, is that there is nowhere downtown to build such a stadium. St. Petersburg would like to build a new stadium in their downtown area, but Romano cites the horrendous attendance record for the current stadium, Tropicana Field, as the reason that cannot go forward.

Romano puts forth a surprise – Romano calls it a “wild card” – choice in the lands of the Derby Lane Greyhound Track and, by connection, the Derby Lane Poker Room. Romano notes that it is close to Hillsborough County, the major population center for the area, and was looked at as a previous site to build. “So, would Derby Lane’s owners sell?” Romano asks. “In the right situation, yes.”

While the greyhound track might be in danger, Romano thinks that the poker room would survive the cut. Due to the decline in greyhound racing in the Sunshine State, the Florida Legislature has considered several bills that would “decouple” the racetracks from the poker rooms that operate on their grounds (under current Florida law, a poker room can operate only at a racetrack that offers an active racing schedule or simulcast operations). If the laws were changed, then the land around the Derby Lane Poker Room could be sold and the land used for the baseball facilities.

This isn’t out of the realm of thought. The current football stadium being built in Los Angeles for the recently-returned Los Angeles Rams (and potentially the San Diego Chargers should they be unable to negotiate a new stadium with San Diego politicians) is being built on the grounds of the old Hollywood Park horse racing track in Inglewood, CA, which was closed and destroyed in 2013-14. The Hollywood Park Casino and Poker Room wasn’t a part of the destruction, however, and earlier this year was reopened. It is planned to be an integral part of the new “Los Angeles Entertainment Complex” (which will include the football stadium) when it opens for business in 2019.

Romano figures the likelihood of the Rays moving to the Derby Lane Poker Room anytime soon as highly unlikely but not out of the question. “How enthusiastic are the Rays going to be about recommitting themselves to downtown St. Petersburg when it has become obvious that Hillsborough fans are not driving that far?” Romano asks. “Will Rays owner Stu Sternberg be willing to spend a boatload of his own money if there is little political clout to fund a stadium in downtown Tampa? Derby Lane is still a long shot and it is far from being a perfect site…but which site is?”

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