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In new ad campaign, Rays pitch fans to bond with team at the Trop

It happens every spring. How should the Tampa Bay Rays market the team for a brand new baseball season?

While some stars were traded, new team personalities offer fresh potential. For now, the Rays are pitching an emotional appeal to fans in upcoming print, TV and radio, digital billboards and — increasingly — social media advertising:

Come bond with the Rays first hand at Tropicana Field.

On Friday, Rays marketing executives Mark Fernandez and Tom Hoof showed me a series of print ads and a TV ad (coming March 31) emphasizing the fun of attending a Rays game in person. This tag line appears on all ads this year:

Only at the ballpark.

In one print ad, Rays season opener fireballer David Price, looking savage enough to scare even bad boy hurler Randy Johnson. Third base phenom Evan Longoria appears in another. Some ads feature scenes of fans — scrambling to catch a foul ball or a youngster in a team jersey grinning at Rays mascot Raymond. The TV ad is all about the fun of being in the stands with fellow fans.

Though Rays crowd pleasers Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena have moved on, newly arrived Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez are creating plenty of buzz and merchandise sales (watch for the Manny dreadlocks wig). B.J. Upton has his followers and Ben Zobrist has won fan admiration for his style, too.

As Fernandez and Hoof both insist, Rays ad campaigns have never fixated on the individual player.

"You won't see our ads," says Hoof, "built 70 percent of the time around Longoria," even if he is an emerging superstar. "It starts with (Rays manager Joe) Maddon. It's all about the name on the front, not the back, of the shirt."

Last year, the Rays (with perennial partner Piper Paul + Kenney advertising firm) delivered a campaign with a similar theme — come to the Trop for a great experience — punctuated with a snappy drum line beat. A year earlier, the 2009 ad campaign had the best material imaginable to work with: Stirring clips and fan memories of the 2008 Cinderella season that took the Rays from worst to first in the American League and into the World Series.

The Rays marketers acknowledge game attendance is still a challenge, especially on weekdays. A new Forbes magazine ranking says the Rays generate an average revenue of only $31 per fan vs. $53 by the New York Yankees. Yet Rays fans may see that difference as good value in watching baseball for less. Plus, the Rays still allow folks to bring their own food to the games.

On the downside, Forbes ranked the Rays franchise value of $331 million at No. 28 among baseball teams, ahead of only the Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates.

On the upside, the Rays enjoy Major League Baseball's fifth largest TV audience. The fans are there, if not the in-person attendance.

Fernandez says Florida's economy, which took it on the chin several years ago, is improving for the Rays. But slowly. Sweetbay and Re/Max are still big sponsors, while Monroe Shocks and Hancook Tires are new.

"This business continues to be healthy," Fernandez says.

Clearly, one marketing arena that the Rays say is big and about to get much bigger is social media. On Twitter, the Rays "tweet" short messages as does Maddon and players like Price, Upton and Reid Brignac.

But the big opportunity is Facebook where the Rays maintain a team home page with more than 257,223 fans as of Friday afternoon. Hoof, recruited six years ago from Disney in Orlando, sees great possibilities from Facebook and its ability to generate instant feedback on any Rays subject.

Underlying all of this — somewhere in the years ahead — there is the painful decision coming about a new stadium and where the Rays might land.

But for now, just before the 2011 start of Major League Baseball, these guys are willing to drop their business guard and sound more like 12-year-olds waiting for the first pitch. Can't say I blame them.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

By the numbers

1.85 million: Attendance at Tropicana Field last season

257,223 (and counting): Followers on Rays Facebook page

5: Rank in TV audience among MLB teams

150: Rays games to be telecast statewide this season

25: Rays games shown on TV in Orlando market a few years ago

39: Rays games that will charge just $9 for an upper deck ticket

$523 million: Value of average MLB franchise

$331 million: Value of Rays, up 5 percent from year ago

BBQ succeeds Batter's Eye

A centerfield landmark since the Rays' arrival and the target of many a homer at the Trop, the Batter's Eye Restaurant, has closed. In its place and serving two hours prior to "Play ball!" is the Everglades BBQ Smokehouse. It's a family-style restaurant serving traditional barbecue, smoked fresh daily onsite. The menu includes pulled pork, ribs, chicken, wings, corn on the cob, potato wedges and bar. Reservations for parties of six or more: (727) 825-3378. There are also takeout locations at the Trop's first base food court and Right Field Street.

In new ad campaign, Rays pitch fans to bond with team at the Trop 03/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 2:13am]

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