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Tampa Bay Rays give fans mixed messages about Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG

Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Saturday he was tabling talk of a new stadium and focusing on the positives: "We're putting a good product out there, the place is inviting.''

But three days later, key Rays personnel were blasting "inviting'' Tropicana Field amid embarrassing national attention to quirky malfunctions, including a light shattered by a popup, a power outage and a fly ball lost in the catwalks.

"The Trop is "inappropriate'' for baseball, manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. National criticism is distracting players, said president Matt Silverman.

Such mixed messages, though seemingly schizoid to outsiders, are common when teams lobby for new stadiums, said people familiar with the process.

Projects can take a decade to get off the ground. Owners must emphasize flaws of existing stadiums, even while trying to attract fans to them.

"It is a big challenge. We experienced it here,'' said Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins, who replaced the cavernous Metrodome last year with Target Field.

Years of new stadium debate "no doubt solidified the perception of the Metrodome as a bad baseball park,'' St. Peter said. "We tried to make it the best possible experience as we could for fans, and the best way was to put quality teams on the field. But there's no mistaking the challenge.''

The Rays, like the Twins, have said they cannot compete without the larger revenue that new stadiums produce. Rays officials declined to comment Wednesday about whether that message undermines attendance.

The teams latest advertising campaign — "Only at the Ballpark" — trumpets stadium experiences television can't match.

One commercial shows a woman in the packed stands: "Rays games are the perfect first date. You'll never run out of things to talk about. Like Price's fastball. Raymond's dances. Longoria. The only dilemma is kiss cam. Do I kiss him or don't I? And if I do, is it just a peck or do I just go for it? So much pressure."

In another ad, Maddon — who told reporters Tuesday that "it's time to move on'' because the Trop has "served its purpose'' — stands in the dugout and says, "When the Pit is rocking, it really fires the whole team up. Sometimes it gets so loud in here I can't hear myself think. And I think pretty loud."

One admirer of the "Only at the Ballpark" ad campaign is Ken Banks, a former vice president of marketing at Eckerd Drugs and PetSmart. He now runs his own firm, KAB Marketing.

The Rays' campaign clearly evokes the thrill of being at a game, Banks said.

But that message gets muddled when top Rays executives and managers characterize the Trop as "improper" or "outdated" because the stadium is essentially the product being touted in the ad campaign.

"It's a good campaign, but it's fighting the fact that management is saying it's not a good venue," Banks said.

"It's like going to a T.G.I. Friday's, and the wait staff tells you that the quality of meat there isn't very good."

The Rays have worked to enhance the Trop experience. After taking over in 2005, Sternberg's group pumped millions of dollars into stadium improvements, allowed fans to bring in food, introduced Saturday concerts and fielded a winning team.

But attendance has never met expectations. Through Tuesday, it averaged 19,741 a game for 2011, down at least 3,000 from last year and third-worst in the league. Wednesday night's game against the New York Yankees drew 21,505 fans.

A lackluster early season schedule probably contributed, as did the departure of some popular players. But some decline stems from the Rays' own stadium drumbeat, said Neil De­Mause, whose Field of Schemes blog criticizes public financing of stadiums.

"If the team owner and executives are standing there week after week and saying that the place is a dump, eventually fans are going to get in their heads that the place is a dump,'' DeMause said. "And even more important, ESPN announcers are going to get it in their head the place is a dump.''

The Rays have never called the Trop a dump. They say it lacks modern amenities and is located too far from Tampa Bay's demographic and business center.

Still, negative talk of any sort hurts attendance, DeMause said. The Florida Marlins campaigned for years until Miami-Dade officials helped finance a stadium, due to open in 2012.

"Every year it was, 'We are going to move. We can't survive. We are going to get evicted,' '' said DeMause. "It certainly didn't get anybody to come to the ballpark, but eventually it did help get city and county officials to think they had to build a new stadium.''

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster chalked Maddon and Silverman's recent comments to two tough, one-run losses on the national stage.

"I truly think the organization as a whole wants to promote not just the product as a whole, but the house in which they play," Foster said. "I think it was frustration more than anything else.''

Entering the Trop on Wednesday in her blue Rays shirt, St. Petersburg teacher Gina Mason, 45, said she understands the balancing act the Rays face.

"You can't build a fan base when every other day you're saying you want to move," she said. "They're in a push-and-pull situation. They say come and support us, but that they don't want to be here.''

The Trop could use upgrades, but is basically fine, said her boyfriend, George Baker, 42, of Venice and wearing a Yankees hat.

Attendance is suffering because of the economy, Mason said, and fans are tired of hearing about a new stadium.

"Get over it and play baseball."

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Tropicana Field attendance

After years of steady increases since Stu Sternberg took over ownership in 2005, home-game attendance is on the decline.

Year Avg./game AL rank
2006 16,901 14
2007 17,131 14
2008 22,370 12
2009 23,148 11
2010 23,025 9
2011 19,741 13

Source: baseball-reference.com

Tampa Bay Rays give fans mixed messages about Tropicana Field 07/20/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 21, 2011 7:33am]
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