On multiple fronts, the Tampa Bay Rays are making key progress.
Political permission to start looking at potential new stadium sites in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties? Check. Some sharp-eyed trades in the offseason to beef up the Rays' lean lineup with bigger bats? Check.
What else could the Rays ask for?
How about more derrieres planted firmly in too-empty seats at Tropicana Field?
The team finished the 2015 season with homefield attendance averaging 15,403 per game, lowest among 30 Major League Baseball franchises. That's 2,403 fewer fans per game then the 29th-place Cleveland Indians and one-third the game attendance enjoyed by the No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers.
In an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times, a trio of senior Rays executives outlined plans to make it more tempting to attend games — especially on weekdays when work and school schedules make it tougher for more people to watch the Rays at the Trop.
The Rays are pushing aggressive promotions and discounts this year, offering those in the military and veterans free admission on Mondays, while cutting kids' ticket prices to $2 on Tuesdays and charging just $2 for hot dogs every Wednesday. Seniors can get $15 tickets for games on Thursday. Students get the same deal on Fridays.
In addition, the Rays are deepening their relationship in two ways with their season ticket holders, the fan base that Rays president Brian Auld calls "the lifeblood" of the MLB organization. First, the Rays are building a large, swank hangout dubbed the Draft Room at the club level of the Trop along the third-base line, exclusively for season ticket fans. Second, the Rays are starting a rewards program using a points system similar to American Airlines and Marriott.
Jeff Cogen was recently hired by the Rays and given the sweeping title of chief business officer. He explains that the franchise has had lots of good marketing ideas, but needed to sharpen them so that it was clear what their value was to Rays fans — and potential fans. The new marketing plan lets the Rays target specific slices of the team's fan base more effectively.
Cogen envisions a marketing scenario that can draw first-timers to the Trop, persuade more casual fans to become more frequent attendees, and more regulars to become season ticket holders.
The new rewards program, he says, can influence behavior, for example, by giving a fan 2,000 points for attending a Tuesday game but only 500 points for a Saturday game. He also sees points being redeemed not only for free food or drink, but increasingly in exchange for one-of-a-kind experiences with the Rays.
One example: Cashing in points to let your 12-year-old watch batting practice right on the field. Or join the Rays on a community project.
"A season ticket holder can build his own sundae, if you will," Cogen suggests. He characterizes the Rays' low attendance at the Trop not as a problem but "an opportunity" — especially with the strong fan base that watches Rays games on TV.
Cogen may prove to be a compelling addition to the Rays business mix. He formerly served as CEO of the Nashville Predators hockey team, and from 2004-07 was the Texas Rangers' president.
He says his marketing career has come full circle — he started in St. Petersburg with the Ringling Bros. circus. He calls baseball his "true love."
My sit-downs with Rays executives every February traditionally focus on what new advertising campaign the team will unveil at the start of the season. This year, the Rays are sticking with their last and, frankly, superior ad campaign: Rays Up. Auld says it will be refreshed with new music but otherwise stay largely the same.
Auld, Cogen and Rays marketing vice president Brian Richeson point to an expanding crop of Rays players who are enjoying broad appeal to fans. In addition to Evan Longoria, a core player used in Rays marketing for years, the executives point to starting pitcher Chris Archer, centerfielder (and fan heartthrob) Kevin Kiermaier, team MVP Logan Forsythe and pitcher Alex Cobb (coming off rehab) as emerging public faces that can strengthen the team brand.
Auld refuses to call the Rays' current effort to start looking for a new stadium site a distraction. The Rays have been open about their intentions, he says. The team wants to remain a Tampa Bay team for many years to come, whether in Hillsborough or Pinellas.
But near term, can the new marketing focus help claw the Rays' attendance out of last place? The Rays, after all, will be playing at the Trop for some years yet. And they have suffered the lowest attendance in baseball four years in a row.
Auld is optimistic. Look at the team stats, he says.
The Rays have won the third-most number of games in the major leagues since 2008. And they have done that with one of the lowest payrolls.
Says Auld: "The Rays are this region's team."
Contract Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.