Saturday, May 26, 2018
Business

Trigaux: Measuring Tampa Bay's economy through Rays fans, innovation, private companies

There are ever-growing ways to measure the steps forward — or backward — of the Tampa Bay economy. We tend to report overview data like unemployment rates or housing sales. But sometimes a more focused gauge sheds new light. Here are three different measures of what's happening here that deserve attention.

1. Rays fans: We report constantly on the standings of the Tampa Bay Rays' play on the field. But what about the status of Rays fans? A new analysis of major-league baseball fans conducted by marketing professors Michael Lewis (no, not the Michael Lewis who wrote Moneyball) and Manish Tripathi of Emory University's Goizueta Business School in Atlanta found that the Tampa Bay Rays trail every other major-league team in translating fan loyalty into revenues.

From 2011 to 2013, the Rays generated about $120.4 million less in ticket sales than projected, even when factoring in the size and demographics of the team's market and their impressive record during those three seasons, when the team won 273 games against just 214 losses.

By Lewis and Tripathi's calculations, that makes the Rays the worst team in baseball in "fan equity" which is a businesslike way to describe fan loyalty. The Rays ranked 30th — last — among MLB teams in fan equity as well as the growth in fan equity measured over the past 15 years. The Rays ranked sixth in attendance sensitivity to price, meaning fans tend to react more than most to changes in ticket prices. And they ranked 12th in how attendance is affected by team success, a measure some call the ranking of "bandwagon" or "fair-weather" fans.

Tripathi says the overall metrics for Rays fans mean the team must try to minimize bad seasons, like the one they are currently having. That may sound like a "duh" for any team, but the Emory research shows certain teams — notably the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals — enjoy intensely supportive fans even in down years. On the flip side, their research found the most fair-weather fans, those most likely to stop going to games or supporting their team in a weak season, belong to the Philadelphia Phillies and the Baltimore Orioles.

In an interview, Tripathi says newer teams like the Rays, Miami Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks are still fighting a fan base with allegiances forged with other teams. That will change with the next generation, he says, but it still means these teams are more vulnerable to flighty fans.

How do the Rays boost fan equity? Increasing payroll to field a more competitive team is one option, Tripathi says. So is building a new stadium, though he cautions: typically that delivers only a temporary bump in fan support.

The business professors also analyzed the social media following of each MLB team by collecting every Twitter "tweet" that mentions a team's name. Using algorithms, the professors sorted the tweets of each team into negative, neutral or positive categories to form a composite picture of fan commentary.

The Rays ranked 12th, impressively, in social media equity, meaning they have a stronger following based on Twitter activity than 22 other teams.

But the professors grouped each team's Twitter comments by sentiment. What was the tone of their tweets? MLB team fans landed in one of four categories: "loving and stable" (Braves and Cardinals); "happy but volatile" (13 teams including the Marlins); "miserable marriage" (nine teams including the Yankees); and "depression and some mania" (five teams: the Rays, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers).

This last category that includes the Rays is professor Lewis' personal favorite segment, which he describes as fan bases that are generally very unhappy but have a few instances of extreme joy.

Says Lewis: "We think we can also say that these are the teams with the most challenging fan bases to manage."

Good luck, Rays!

2. Innovation hub: How innovative is Tampa Bay? More than one might think. A key measure of innovation is to look at the number of U.S. patents granted. By that measure, the University of South Florida has much to be proud of, landing 12th worldwide (and tops in Florida) with 95 patents in 2013 in an annual ranking of universities. This is no fluke. A year earlier, USF ranked 15th worldwide (again tops in Florida) among universities with 79 patents in 2012. Kudos.

Let's look at a broader swath of Central Florida. In addition to USF ranking 12th, the University of Florida in Gainesville ranked 14th and the University of Central Florida in Orlando ranked 38 out of the worldwide universities.

As a beaming Florida High Tech Corridor (which supports Central Florida technology growth) stated: "Together, the Corridor universities were granted 239 patents compared to 130 granted to the Triangle (Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and the 226 patents granted to Texas universities (the entire University of Texas system, Rice University and Texas A&M University)."

3. Measuring private companies: Gauging the size and growth of private companies that do not publish their quarterly performance is never easy. So it's helpful when Florida Trend magazine (a sister publication of this newspaper) publishes its annual ranking of the state's top 125 public and 225 private companies. Trend's July issue will reach readers shortly, but here's a peek at how some private companies fared.

Yes, Publix Super Markets in Lakeland is still a growing giant. And based on revenues, SouthEast Personnel Leasing in Holiday is Tampa Bay's biggest private firm, followed by Rooms To Go in Seffner, Beall's in Bradenton and Automated Petroleum in Brandon. You may be surprised at the hefty number of good-sized private companies based in this area.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

 
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