Tampa Bay Rays executives have high hopes this baseball season both on and off the field.
Rays president Matt Silverman said Tuesday that he anticipates increased attendance at Tropicana Field this year — a prediction he said he would not have made a year ago when star players such as Carl Crawford left. He credits both an improved Rays team in 2012 — assisted by this week's signing of manager Joe Maddon to a 3-year contract extension — and a concerted branding and business push by the Rays organization to build deeper roots across the Tampa Bay community.
"I see real excitement building for this season," says Silverman, who sees an economy a bit more willing to spend on entertainment. "All the talk of the stadium situation can overshadow some of the day-to-day efforts."
One highlight: The Rays cite Scarborough Research data that show the Rays last year passed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in total number of fans after trailing the Bucs badly just a few years ago. Fans are defined as people who attended, listened to or watched a team's game in the past 12 months. Here's the breakdown:
• Rays fans grew 105 percent in the past five years and numbered 1.52 million at the end of last season, measured just before the baseball playoffs. Silverman, now 35 and celebrating eight years here with the Rays, says that fan number represents a 44 percent penetration of Tampa Bay's 3.5 million population. That's good, though not nearly the fan base of some teams like the Milwaukee Brewers, whose penetration rate is closer to 70 percent. There's plenty of work to do.
• Bucs fans, measured just before the team's weak performance last season, are in decline and numbered 1.49 million. That figure was undoubtedly hurt by TV blackouts when home games were not sold out.
• Well behind are Tampa Bay Lightning fans, growing but from a smaller base of 689,429, and University of South Florida Bulls football fans, which have slipped recently to 646,982.
Silverman doesn't gloat about these numbers but wants to show that Rays fans have doubled since 2007. He wants to emphasize the Rays are seriously entrenched here, even as he notes attendance at Rays games slipped last year to 1.53 million as Major League Baseball teams averaged closer to 2.5 million.
The debate over a new stadium will continue. Recently, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg at least agreed that, for now, more marketing by the city might help Rays attendance.
Via TV, radio and the Web, the reach of the Rays stretches solidly to Orlando and south to Port Charlotte (where the Rays play spring training games) and even statewide.
Silverman, Rays marketing chief Mark Fernandez and team spokesman Rick Vaughn visited the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the team's off-the-field efforts to engage with the community.
Vaughn says this year's team is full of players eager to give back to the area. He credits Maddon's own generosity (both here and in his home town of Hazleton, Pa.) for serving as a role model for the younger players. He cites David Price, James Shields and Matt Joyce serving as grand marshals at last month's Gasparilla parade in Tampa. Fernandez, 48, notes Shields' work with foster children, while B.J. Upton, Price and Joyce have adopted St. Petersburg recreation centers. And Evan Longoria is working with Moffitt Cancer Center.
Silverman himself chairs Starting Right Now, a Hillsborough program that helps the homeless of high school age. Fernandez is poised to chair the regional United Way. Sternberg's annual tradition is to build an area playground.
If it sounds a bit self-serving, there's another point to be made. The Rays players, management team and the franchise's 150 employees (none lost their jobs in the recession, Silverman says with pride) are trying to reach deeper into the community as volunteers, mentors, sponsors and investors.
There's more at work here with building the Rays franchise than 81 home games and the annual dream of steamrolling the Red Sox and Yankees.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.