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Attendance figures to be downfall

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff September 16, 2008 07:47 AM

If not now, then when?

All things considered, the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays couldn’t have dreamt of a better scenario than what they’re watching unfold during the magical 2008 season. For the first time in team history, the Rays are winners, last night’s despicable choke job notwithstanding, and a new aura hovers over the team.

For the first time ever, the Rays are likely headed to the postseason, and few in the Tampa-St. Pete area seem to care. While 29,772 watched the Red Sox demoralize the Rays, 13-5, last night at Tropicana Field, that’s far from a sellout crowd of just over 36,000. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg expressed his disappointment that the team probably wouldn’t be able to draw 20,000 Thursday night against the Minnesota Twins. That game kicks off four-game series that could have wild card implications with Minnesota seven games off the pace.

With just six games remaining on its home schedule, Tampa Bay's 21,533 per game average is better than only Oakland and Kansas City in the American League. Tropicana Field's capacity percentage of 51.1 is worse than Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Washington, cities that were forced to give up on their teams' pennant races sometime between Memorial Day and the All-Star break.

Florida baseball. Apathy at its worst.

Before last night's game, the last time the Rays played at home on a weeknight not against Boston or New York, they drew 14,039 against Toronto on Aug. 28. The previous night, it was 12,678. For a first-place team. The Rays are holding a lottery on their web site for the "opportunity" to purchase postseason tickets. The best opportunity will probably be to walk up day of a playoff game and have your pick of seats.

Cinderella story or not, there comes a point when you have to decide that something just doesn't jive in the community. And the Rays certainly are not the right fit for a Tampa area more fixated on football, fishing, and NASCAR. In few cities is the NHL a bigger draw than major league baseball, but that is precisely the case in a city where winter frost is only a sporadic sight. The last-place Tampa Bay Lightning drew an average of 18,693 last season, a 95.9 percent capacity.

St. Pete Times columnist John Romano wrote last month:

Call it sobering. Call it disappointing. Soon, you may be calling it disturbing or threatening.

Because if you assume the attendance figures have been lost in the excitement of the division standings, you are naive. The commissioner's office has taken notice, and owner Stuart Sternberg has surely been paying attention.

And what they see is a community running out of excuses. It's no longer about poor ownership, because Sternberg's crew has done everything possible to reach out to the fans. And it's no longer about losing because the Rays have been among baseball's best teams for four months.

So if it's not about the team or the owner, then it is an indictment of the market or the stadium location.

At this point, that has to be the conclusion, doesn't it? Residents no longer have the excuse of having to endure a perennial last-place team, with the Rays chock full of young talent that has exploded onto the scene this season. And, as Romano points out, this ownership has already tried giving free parking, allowing fans to bring their own food to the park, and did not raise ticket prices this season, one of only two teams not to do so.

But they still stay away. Yes, the awful ballpark is one reason, yet in 1994, the Montreal Expos drew 1.276 million in a strike-shortened season at the incomparably terrible Stade Olympique. The Twins average 27,597 at a Metrodome that won't exactly ever make any list of the game's crown jewels.

The Rays still face an uphill battle in their quest for a new ballpark, fighting public pressure that denotes that new parks will only bring an average of 2.2 more wins. But in Tampa Bay's case, this is really less about financial viability for the short-term, and more about its quest to be seen as a sporting institution in the area, something the Rays can't be considered in their sad little dome.

But the question still lingers, is a new ballpark even worth it? Would this team be better off someplace else, even if the cities mentioned once again are old standbys Vegas and Portland? If they're not coming out for this team, at these prices, then who exactly would they come out for?

In recent Octobers, it has been Atlanta that has been the scorn of baseball fans everywhere, many of whom can't understand how the team didn't sell out playoff games, even after years of NL East titles under their belts. Still, in 1991, the year the Braves went from worst to first, Atlanta drew 2.14 million fans, a number that increased as the season wore on. In 2008, in Tampa Bay, that hasn't been the case. While the rest of America revels in the great story that is the Rays' surge to relevance, Tampa-St. Pete yawns.

On the bright side, you can't call them bandwagon fans. Just don't consider them fans at all.

30 comments so far...
  1. Yeah we get it, "Boston is the center of the sports universe", we've sold out our park 493 million times in a row, we know sports and everybody else doesn't, other cities are so much worse off than us, blah, blah, blah.

    Posted by Johnny Briggs September 16, 08 09:25 AM
  1. I won't harp too much on the struggling economy, i.e. people have less money to spend on leisure, are less likely to go to a sporting event on impulse, they need the money for other things, we all know that. We could be looking at a situation where the ineptness of the previous regime, and not just on the field, turned off so many people that they will need many years of success to get them back, if they ever do at all. It's the theorem of the lost customer can never be replaced, or at least not without ridiculous expenditures to bring them back. But a couple years of winning may help. I seem to remember the Bucs not being able to draw flies when they sucked in the 80s.

    Posted by Jeff from Alexandria September 16, 08 09:32 AM
  1. Portland would be a great baseball town and already has a beautiful downtown ballpark that could be expanded to become a major league park. While Portland would likely be something of a mid-range market, it has only one pro team, which has a long history of drawing fans.
    The Rays are an exciting team, but if they stay in Tampa they will be blown up like Florida. Longoria will soon be in Boston, Pena in New York, Crawford in Los Angeles, Shields in Anaheim. Any fan of professional baseball doesn't want to see this. Selig needs to act swiftly to get this up and coming franchise a better home.
    Heck, move them to Brooklyn with the Nets. That same study a few years back that said D.C., Portland and Vegas were up and coming markets, also said New York is the BEST market even with three teams. Imagine The Red Sox, Yanks and Brooklynites all in the same division! It would be GREAT for baseball.
    Anywhere BUT TAMPA. Pull the plug, that city is dead for baseball

    Posted by Scott from San Fran September 16, 08 10:20 AM
  1. The utter lack of a development of a bandwagon to follow this Rays team is quite interesting. Under most scripts, the first successful season in franchise history would've propelled the attendance and merchandise sales upwards. Perhaps Tampa Bay's demographics combined with a housing and real estate bubble burst to ruin any building mood people in the area may have had to go out and buy Rays tickets in a perfect storm of sorts. Or perhaps it's just way less complicated than that.

    Posted by Andrew S. September 16, 08 10:40 AM
  1. I commented on another blog, "What will it take to fill the Trop?" Apparently not a red-hot pennant race. A big chunk of that 29,772 were Red Sox fans. Pathetic.

    I guess the only answer to my question is: MONSTER TRUCK RALLY!! YEE-HAW!!

    Posted by Bob September 16, 08 10:45 AM
  1. I lived in the Tampa/St. Pete area from the late '80s until just recently, which encompasses the time during which the area tried to land an MLB franchise. My assessment is that baseball simply took too long, and delivered too many false hopes (the early 90's expansion that "stole" the NL franchise that became the Marlins, league-engineered killings of deals to relocate the Mariners and Giants, etc.), for Bay area fans to warm up to the Rays. By the time MLB finally came to Tampa Bay in 1996, there was less a feeling of triumph in the major-league pursuit than of fatigue. Plus, the original Vince Naimoli ownership promised (and delivered) years of losing just as the area's NFL and NHL teams were becoming winners. The stadium location in west-downtown St. Pete doesn't help, but I doubt moving the team to city of Tampa would change much. At this point it'll take at least a couple, and more like several, years of winning before fans in TB take an interest. By then, of course, it'll probably be too late...

    Posted by CT September 16, 08 12:23 PM
  1. I think CT is right. Tampa just needs to prove that they can compete consistently. Breed fans from a young age. They haven't won over many fans for the last 12 years. It takes time and wins to make people fall in love with a team.

    Let the Rays have their nice story this year and see if they can keep it up beyond 2008.

    Posted by J-Bone September 16, 08 12:52 PM
  1. The allure of the ballpark itself can have a big impact on attendance, and it seems Tampa's dome leaves much to be desired. I lived in the Washington, D.C. area when Camden Yards opened up and went to alot of games there, simply because the park itself became a great destination. I don't know the specific numbers, but I'm certain that attendance skyrocketed in 1992 and remained significantly higher than it was at Memorial Stadium until they started putting a complete crap product on the field (I love you Milar, but you'll be ten times more impactful as a base coach when you retire than you'll ever be as a DH). I've never been to Tampa's stadium in person, but the dome in Tampa looks like all the other crappy domes in baseball. No style, no personality, no GRASS! Build it, and they (might) come.

    Posted by BHW September 16, 08 12:58 PM
  1. fans like Johnny Briggs, no wonder they don't fill the Trop. They are all negative.

    Posted by Jonny Gomes September 16, 08 01:16 PM
  1. Peter Ueberroth once stated that Orlando was the only market in FL that baseball would be successful in, and despite winning franchises like the Marlins and Rays (albeit only this year for the Rays) his statement appears to be spot on. Some places just don't work, and this appears as one. Great young players, a team positioned for many years of success, low ticket prices, and ownership that would do anything to have the fans come down - and yet bubkus! I agree with Scott, head on up to Portland and succeed. And btw Johnny, thanks for adding nothing to the discussion.

    Posted by Capt Stu September 16, 08 01:48 PM
  1. To Jonny Gomes...believe me, I live in Tampa Bay...and this is the typical attitude of a Rays fan. They complain that the Sox and Yankee fans take over their stadium. Ridiculous. If they bought tickets, that wouldn't be a problem would it?

    Posted by Sox fan in Tampa September 16, 08 01:49 PM
  1. I don't think it's the venue, I think it's the fan base. When Tropicana Field was the ThunderDome and the Lightning used to play there, the place used to regularly sell out - all 28,000 seats. And that was when the Lightning were a perpetual also-ran. Guess Reinsdorf's best decision was not moving the White Sox to Tampa Bay.

    Posted by EC September 16, 08 01:54 PM
  1. Johnny Briggs - I think what he's saying is that Tampa doesn't care about their baseball team and probably doesn't deserve them. It would probably be better for all involved if they moved the team somewhere they'll get support.

    It really has nothing to do with Boston. But since you brought it up....Boston IS the center of the sports universe and we DO know MORE about sports than anyone else.

    You proved it yourself by coming to the Boston Globe Sports page to get your info.

    Posted by Mike September 16, 08 02:20 PM
  1. Why do people think Portland would be a good place for baseball? Because they are the next city down from Tampa Bay in metro population? A smaller market, with only one team (which averages 80% capacity or less over 4 of the last 6 years) and ZERO evidence of support of sports outside of basketball. Yup. Recipe for success! And Vegas? Seriously?

    Also, why is it that the Red Sox fans I have met all over the place ALL claim to be from the Boston area originally? Seems unlikely. They are either lying to fit in (the Pink Hats suggest this is maybe the case) or Boston is such a dump that they have all moved elsewhere. Having been to Boston many times, I tend toward the latter.

    You guys ARE the center of the sports world, in a city that otherwise peaked in the 1700s. Congrats.

    Posted by The truth hurts ... September 16, 08 03:03 PM
  1. Part of the Rays problem is they have failed to put together a major league TV contract. In Charlotte County 80 miles south of The Trop, where the Rays are moving their spring training this February, the game tonight will be available only if you have rabbit ears. Tonight's game, just like Game 2 of last week's pivotal series at Fenway is on a Class A network called ION (never heard of it? You're not alone). How sad is that in the digital era that you can't get major league baseball pennant race games on cable or satellite? Shame on Rays prez Michael Kalt.

    Posted by Brian Gleason September 16, 08 03:28 PM
  1. A little more reporting would have really helped this column.

    No, the Rays don't draw as well as the Red Sox, but the fact is that even with the economy in the tank, the Rays average attendance is still up 27% over last year! That's the biggest increase of any MLB team.

    Moreover, if you compare the Rays to other expansion teams like the Mariners, they compare pretty favorably. In the Mariners 11th year (1989), total attendance was 1,022,398 and average attendance was 12,701. 2008 is Tampa's 11th year, and with 6 home games left, their total attendance is 1,626,161 and average is 21,682.

    Posted by jack sanford September 16, 08 04:35 PM
  1. "Also, why is it that the Red Sox fans I have met all over the place ALL claim to be from the Boston area originally? Seems unlikely. They are either lying to fit in (the Pink Hats suggest this is maybe the case) or Boston is such a dump that they have all moved elsewhere. Having been to Boston many times, I tend toward the latter."

    The people who are from Boston and moved for whatever reason are just proud of where they grew up. Imagine that.

    Plus Boston sports are bigger than just the city, it's all of New England: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and (kind of) Connecticut.

    That's a good amount of people, coming and going.

    The Boston area has some of the best universities and health centers on the planet, as well as a unique food, history, arts and culture specific to the region.

    I have no idea where you're from Mr. Hurts, but it must not be a place people feel much of a connection with, otherwise you would understand.

    "You guys ARE the center of the sports world, in a city that otherwise peaked in the 1700s. Congrats."

    If that's true, I'd rather live in a city that already peaked than one that never did and never will.

    Posted by Kevin September 16, 08 05:17 PM
  1. I've been around Tampa Bay for 50 years. Tampa Bay fans won't ever rally in large numbers to support the Rays. Some sports just don't thrive in some areas. For months while MLB was on-going and pre-season NFL games hadn't started the sports news on Tampa TV was consumed with the Bucs. Right now, with the Rays in first place and contending for the post-season, they air more Bucs stories than Rays stories. And no, it's not the economy. You can walk up (after parking right outside FOR FREE) and get a ticket for $10! And on days when it's oppressively hot and humid outside it's 72 inside the Trop. Young players, great stories, exciting team but the fans don't go because they don't care. I'm a Red Sox fan but still feel the Rays deserve better than the treatment they get. Too bad.

    Posted by Scooby-Doo September 16, 08 08:08 PM
  1. I am so sick of these arrogant, brow beating articles being written all over the country. It has become cliche to bash the Tampa Bay market.

    Buster Olney brought up some great #'s the other day. The NY Yankees only averaged 27K in 196. This was the year they won the World Series after about a decade of nothing special. That is in NY City with a metro market of over 20 million. A team with a 100 + history and more success than any team in American sports history. With all that, the 1996 Yankees outdrew an expansion team in a market of 3.5 million. On a per capita basis the Rays are outdrawing the 1996 Yankees.

    In the mid 60's the Red Sox were averaging 8K per game. 8K??? There were talks of relocating the team due to lack of support.

    As the Rays season ticket base grows, which it is by leaps on bounds based on the 09 deposits, so will the attendance. The Rays have had huge crowds on weekends all year. The lowly Orioles were in town for a weekend series 2 weeks ago and the 3 game series drew over 90k. Where was this article then? The problem is,most of the people in the area live somewhere that is not near Tropicana Field. So during the week it is very difficult to get there. On the weekends people have more time and wallah, huge crowds all weekend every weekend.

    Now back to your ignorant bashing of an area you know nothing about....

    Posted by Mike Creyton September 17, 08 01:01 AM
  1. I think its hard for fans of a team that has been around for a hundred years to understand why people aren't filling the Trop now that the Rays are winning. I think the explanation is actually pretty simple. Red Sox fans have grown up having a team all their lives and the Red Sox have had many periods of success in that timespan. They have so much tradition and it makes it easy to be a fan.

    There was excitement when the Rays franchise first started, but most of that turned to apathy over the ten years when most people honestly felt there was absolutely no way this team would ever be able to compete. People haven't grown up with this team, and most people didn't care at all before this year. To really build a fanbase you need a period of success, a time where people can actually have some good times that they associate with the Rays games. For 10 years, the Rays fanbase probably got smaller. Now it actually has a chance to start rising, but its going to take years, not just one year.

    Posted by Pete September 17, 08 02:40 AM
  1. I think all the hoopla in Boston about how many people attend the games in Tampa shows the true nature of the struggling Boston Red Sox fans. The Red Sox nation has to find something to gripe about because your not in first place..... OH BOY your first place in attendance , oh golly your so much better than everyone else. NOT ......Just look at your own history in the first 10 years of existence you avg. 21k per game... The Rays are young and getting better with a bright future....So quit your whining about NON ISSUES... Personally I can't stand Boston fans just like I can't stand Yankee fans. Look where the Yankee's are now for running those fat traps. THe cellar. That is where Boston will be next year for running their mouths ...THE CELLAR .....The real NEWS STORY should be how much the SOx and Yankee players are getting paid for being in 2nd place or worse....GO RAYS

    Posted by Philip S September 17, 08 05:56 AM
  1. The Rays struggles at the gate sound similar to another team that was bad for a long time and caught fire one year, althougth it didn't immediately translate to constant sellouts - the Red Sox in 1967.

    Here's a quote from some Boston rag -

    "While ticket sales seem lackluster by the standards of modern day Fenway Park, even the Red Sox were not much of a draw before 1967. That year, the Sox averaged slightly more than 21,000 for home games, according to redsoxconnection.com."

    Posted by Ben loves Boston whiners September 17, 08 09:54 AM
  1. At least the few Rays fans/residents chiming in here are showing that bitter, chip-on-your-shoulder bravado that takes a reasonable discussion, one actually supporting the progress of their franchise and turns it into BOSTON SUCKS and the RED SOX ARE HEADED TO THE CELLAR!

    Imagine, Boston sucks chants might have replaced Yankee sucks chants. Interesting. But flawed logic remains nonetheless. Example: The Mariners nearly lost their franchise. It took the miracle 95 season, right to the end with Griffey's historic dash home to sway support for the franchise. They lost the Sonics already. It is a rough fit and will remain so on years they don't have a pennant race.

    Sure when teams lose tickets suffer, but the base remains. Folks may be right that it will take years for the Rays, but they won't have years. Once this team is broken up like the Marlins, the Rays will be back to 1,000 fans a night.

    Also, if its so hard to get to on weekends, that just makes the point its a bad fit. Walking to a game or taking a quick public transporation ride are critical to steady attendance, which is crucial. You can't hae a top franchise and only draw on the weekends. Some would call that tourism, not a fan base.

    And the 27 percent increase... come on, talk about making stats say whatever you want. If you have the worst attendance in the league, any spike will be incredible. The fact is with this surprise season, the increase should be far bigger, especially now. I can't wait to see if their playoff games sell out. I really doubt it.

    Posted by Scott from San Fran September 17, 08 11:22 AM
  1. Why should the fans go out and see them? If you had a girlfriend who treated you like crap for 5 years then comes back 3 months after you break up with implants and suddenly starts to treat you nice; you wouldn't be so quick to jump aboard...

    Posted by NateDiP September 17, 08 11:31 AM
  1. It is this simple...When a team is in first place and is the biggest story in sports, then you should have an attendance surge due to bandwagon fans. The first year the Bucs were in contention for a playoff spot with Dungy tickets were a hot commmodity and stopped being windshield fodder. Same thing when the Lightning went to the playoffs. Why not the Rays? Simple, the area doesn't care about baseball. One last thing, the reason a team like the Tampa Bay DevilRays can exist is because teams like the Yankees and Red Sox create massive revenue through tv contracts, merchandise and luxury tax.

    Remember Tampa, those other teams pay for the Rays entire team salary!

    Posted by Brandon from Tampa September 17, 08 12:33 PM
  1. Sarchasm: the gap between the author of sarcastic wit and he who doesn't get it (e.g., Kevin).

    The point of my post was largely to point out how ridiculous it is to criticize (or conversely, aggrandize) a city based on attendance of baseball games. Don't take it so seriously. Both cities are actually pretty freakin' cool. You like baseball more than us. Sweet. We like beaches more. Awesome.

    See you in October.

    Posted by The truth hurts ... September 17, 08 12:40 PM
  1. I had the "pleasure" of attending a Sox game in Tampa during the '05 season, and it became clear to me why no one goes to games down there. The parking lot was an unregulated disaster and took an hour to get out of despite only 25,000 people showing up. The ticket lines for walk-up sales were ENDLESS and took us about 45 minutes to make our purchase. Can you imagine being a Florida retiree and going through that in 95-degree heat? I actually have heard that the TV and ratio ratings for the Rays this year are through the roof, because the large elderly population down there stays home to follow the team. Still, the Marlins have already proven that Florida is a lousy venue for summer baseball. BOTH teams should move, and quick.

    Posted by Jeff P. September 17, 08 01:03 PM
  1. People are poor here. And old. Salaries do not reflect ticket prices--$45-$55 for a decent seat for "premium games" (Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs). Baseball is mass entertainment (like the movies) with elite prices (unlike the movies).

    Posted by El Cheapo September 18, 08 03:33 AM
  1. Anyone who makes negative comments about attendihng a game at the Trop this season has simply not been to the trop this year. It is far and away one of the best venues for baseball in the United States. It is bright and colorful and cool and a great place to watch a game. I have been to Fenway , Yankee Stadium and Wrigley field and without their "history" they are nothing more than dumps, when compared to the Trop. I have been to many other newer stadiums than those three and as far as I am concerned I wouuldn't trade any of them for the Trop.

    I had a friend down from Boston this summer and took her to a couple of games to the Trop and her response was, "fabulous, I wish we had something like this in Boston". She is a big sports fan and a very well educated attorney and college professor. If you haven't been their this season you have no right to comment on its worthiness as a major league venue. I've been to many many major league stadiums so I have first hand knowledge and am not simply repeating what I read or heard from someone else. You cannot debate me unless you have been where I have been.

    Posted by rayalan September 19, 08 02:56 PM
  1. It's always amazing to see posts from people like "Scooby Doo" who details how awful it is that fans don't support the Rays in the Tampa Bay area. "Scooby" has lived in Tampa for 50 freakin years and he's still a Red Sox fan. Thats a couple of generations of "scooby" teaching his kids and grand kids how great it is to be a Red Sox fan. Put down Roots Scooby! Why don't you make Tampa your "Home" instead of a place to die.

    Rays fans have spent 10 years just hoping to finish third in an era when the best story in baseball isn't about a great young team, but a team other than the Mega-Money Yanks and Sox might win the East. Portland, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Vegas, and any city in Arizona is going to face the same thing. Until transplants in those cities begin to settle and appreciate what makes that city unique, they make themselves and everyone around them miserable.
    Imagine if Ted Williams was destined to play for a big money team when his contract ran out, and not stay with your beloved Sox. That's what it's like to be a Rays fan these days. With an aura like that hanging over our heads it's been hard to commit to this team.

    The Sox fan from Brandon complains that there are long lines to buy tickets at the window on game day. That's because we have fewer than 10k season ticket holders. Don't you get it? If we get 30k at a game, that means more than 20k are bought that night.

    Send us your tired, your poor, your elderly masses, yearning to be Rays Fans!
    "Scooby" just doesn't get how pathetic he looks to his friends and neighbors.
    Go Rays, Bucs, Bolts, and (USF)Bulls

    Posted by 5th gen floridian September 19, 08 05:40 PM
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