TAMPA — Amid months of controversy about possible baseball stadiums in Tampa, Gateway or the State Fairgrounds, the Tampa Bay Rays and others have recently honed their focus on something more immediate:
Attendance. This year. In St. Petersburg.
"This is a pivotal year for our franchise,'' Rays president Matt Silverman told a Thursday luncheon of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "We need you behind us, supporting us and coming out to Tropicana Field if this is going to work.''
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster worries the Rays could eventually give up on St. Petersburg, regardless of whether a new stadium is offered. He has been bustling around town for weeks, giving pep talks and collecting public officials from all over the region for a public service announcement supporting "our team.''
Foster even slipped a Rays plug into a recent press event designed to publicize the U.S. census.
"And another way you've got to be counted . . . ,'' he said with a sly grin, "is April 6 at Tropicana Field'' for opening day.
Baseball attendance is hardly a new topic. Former Rays owner Vincent Naimoli groused about empty seats even as his teams oozed futility.
For at least three years, the current owners have said the Trop won't produce the revenue streams they need to field consistently competitive teams.
Now with a talented squad off to a fast start, the Rays seem to be putting Trop doubts and fan support to a test.
"It's the third year of a very compelling team; 2008 was the worst-to-first championship season," Silverman said Thursday. "In 2009 we wanted to build off that. . . .
"Now this is our third bite at the apple with a club that is going to contend. If we continue to lag the league average in attendance, having a team poised to go back to the playoffs, it would be very concerning.''
Across the bay, Sembler executive Craig Sher made a more pointed warning to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg.
"This is a critical year," Sher said. "Go out and buy tickets'' or risk "a fire sale'' of players.
During their inaugural season of 1998, the Rays topped 31,000 fans a game, above the major league average. But that honeymoon quickly soured with a string of losing seasons.
When the team made the playoffs and World Series in 2008, the Trop sold out and tickets were suddenly at a premium, selling at scalper prices on eBay and Craigslist. Taking advantage of that demand, the Rays guaranteed post-season tickets to fans who would sign up for 2009 season ticket packages.
Those sales went a long way toward boosting attendance by 3 percent in 2009, even in the face of a recession, a late season slump and, according to Team Marketing Report, a 20 percent bump in ticket and concession prices.
The Rays ranked 23rd out of 30 teams in 2009 attendance, but management was not happy. Even with 2009's higher prices, a Rays game remained one of baseball's cheapest. Attendance at midweek games dropped 7 percent coming off a World Series year.
The Rays do not release specific sales information, but this year's season ticket purchases are "bad,'' principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said. Many people who bought 2009 season tickets did not renew.
In most cities, corporations buy two-thirds of baseball seasons tickets. In Tampa Bay, they account for only one-third of an already meager total.
Thursday, Silverman's audience of about 300 included most of the larger businesses in Hillsborough County. "We need you if this is going to work,'' he told them. "This is the business center of our region. We need you committed to being a part of baseball. As Tampa goes, so go the Rays.''
In the audience, Wayne Griffin, president of G-2 Services, a Brandon engineering firm, talked of the $18,000 his firm spent this year on four tickets behind the dugout in Row 118.
He loves baseball, drives more than an hour each way to games and plans to keep buying tickets. He's a smiling picture of loyalty but figures the Rays "still owe me.''
You know. "For all those bad years.''
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.
Attendance, costs rose with success
After the Rays won the American League pennant in 2008, attendance rose slightly while the economy tanked. The Rays ranked 23rd out 30 teams in 2009. According to Team Marketing Report's "Fan Cost Index," the cost of attending a Rays game jumped from baseball's cheapest in 2008 to the 11th cheapest in 2009. The index calculates the cost of four standard tickets, parking, two small beers, four sodas, four hotdogs, two programs and two caps. After the team failed to make the playoffs in 2009, the index lowered its cost estimate for the Rays, placing them as the 5th cheapest in baseball. The index does not account for the fact that the Rays allow fans to bring in food.
|Year||Average attendance||Avg. ticket||Small beer||Soft drink||Hot dog||Cap||Fan Cost Index||Pct. change|
**ranked 26th out of 30 teams *** ranked 23rd Sources: ESPN, Team Marketing Report