Everyone, it seems, is doing their part in the Rays stadium quest.
The business leaders? They’re committing millions of dollars in sponsorships and season ticket packages for a potential ballpark in Ybor City.
The ballplayers? They’re providing a glimpse of a future that could be filled with personality and pennants if the past two months are to be trusted.
The fans? They’re avoiding Tropicana Field with such regularity that everyone should finally recognize why ownership wants to escape downtown St. Petersburg.
This, my friends, is how new stadiums get built.
Oh sure, the Ybor City vision is still a long way from completion. The odds remain high and financing options remain scarce. More to the point, the Tampa Bay region still needs to decide how much it is willing to invest to retain membership in the relatively exclusive club known as Major League Baseball.
And, to be honest, attendance in 2018 doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
But, goodness, the empty seats at Tropicana are more glaring than ever.
The Rays have already finished last in the American League in attendance for six consecutive seasons — which is a feat unto itself — but their numbers are somehow getting worse.
At the rate they’re going, the Rays will finish with their lowest attendance since their first baseman was in fourth grade. Lower than the recession years. Lower than the 101-loss season in 2006.
How is that possible? I mean, besides all the usual explanations of demographics, ticket prices, player departures and the Illuminati?
There is an entire generation of fans who have grown up with the Rays on TV, so it’s not a lack of familiarity. The stadium may be poorly placed, but the community around it has grown remarkably.
And Evan Longoria, Logan Morrison and Alex Cobb may have left during the winter, but this team is on pace to win 89 games. Eighty-nine! Do you know how many teams have won 89 or more games and still finished last in the American League in attendance during the last half-century?
Let’s see, there was the 2013 Rays. And the 2012 Rays.
And potentially this team. That’s it.
In other words, this is historic stuff. Teams do not win this much, and still attract so few fans. And you can’t call it an aberration when you consider it’s the third time in seven seasons.
Now, just to be clear, this isn’t fan shaming.
As I’ve said, over and over, residents have no obligation to support a baseball team, a restaurant or a museum. How anyone spends their discretionary dollars is entirely up to them.
The point I’m making is larger.
The success, or in this case the struggles, of a pro sports team is more emblematic of a region’s vitality. Markets that lose MLB or NFL teams invariably overspend while trying to get back into the game for that reason.
That doesn’t mean Tampa Bay will wither if the Ybor City deal falls through. And it doesn’t mean that taxpayers should hand over their wallets if it comes to that.
But there has been a lot of chatter about the need for a new stadium, and the motivation of Rays owner Stu Sternberg. Twenty-one years of attendance data later, that no longer seems debatable.
The Rays have outperformed their crowds.
Say whatever you want about trades and payrolls but the Rays have a better record than the Braves, the Giants, the Mets and the Orioles since 2012. They have a better record than 18 other teams.
And yet they have the worst attendance in baseball for those seven seasons.