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Attendance remains low as Tampa Bay Rays make dramatic playoff push

Even against the Yankees, the Rays played Tuesday in front of many empty seats.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Even against the Yankees, the Rays played Tuesday in front of many empty seats.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays were nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the wild card race on Sept. 3, their season seemingly over.

But then, aided by what could be one of the sport's more memorable collapses, the Rays somehow closed the gap and got back into the race.

And yet, fans haven't shown up to watch the drama.

Even if the Rays sell out Tropicana Field today and all of the club's games in the playoffs — if they get there — it will be hard to forget how few fans attended Monday night's game that tied the race.

The 18,772 who showed up to watch the Rays take on their archrival, the New York Yankees, didn't come close to filling the stadium's 34,078 capacity. One of the biggest games in franchise history, and the Trop was barely half-filled.

"Short of the economy, I'm out of excuses," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who has previously defended the ability of residents to support baseball. "There's a huge sense of urgency, and we have to figure it out."

The Rays are drawing an average of 4,064 fewer fans to games than they did last season, placing them 29th out of 30 Major League Baseball teams. Only the Oakland A's, who have won 17 fewer games, have worse attendance, and barely at that.

"People do have less discretionary income," said Mark Wimberly, chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and a vice president with Progress Energy. "But I will tell you that I'm disappointed by attendance. We have a great team, a great product. I don't have an answer."

For some of the 22,820 fans who attended Tuesday's game, it's the commute that makes it difficult to attend.

"The issue is the haul, dealing with traffic," said Kevan Riese, 41, of Wesley Chapel. "I would go if it was closer."

Riese suggested downtown Tampa as a better location. Last year, a group of community leaders who studied stadium possibilities recommended downtown Tampa, Gateway and West Tampa as the areas closest to where people live and work.

A spokesman of that group, developer Craig Sher, said this season's attendance raises bigger questions than location.

"This year's been perplexing," Sher said. "Quite frankly, I'm out of explanations. We need to re-evaluate the marketplace. We're going backward."

Jason Winfree, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Michigan who gets paid to study baseball attendance, said Monday night's low turnout could be forgiven by the fact that it's the beginning of the work week.

"But having said that, I think Tampa Bay has an issue with attendance," Winfree said. "If I showed you a graph with a line correlating winning and attendance, Tampa Bay would stick out. It's an outlier."

And not in a good way. Winfree said the Rays franchise, which debuted in 1998, might be a victim of an awkward adolescence. It's not a new team, where the novelty can draw for a while. Nor is it an old franchise, with a rich tradition of fan loyalty.

Viewership was up for Monday's game — at its peak, about one out of every five Tampa Bay TVs were watching — but down overall for the season.

"It was an amazing phenomenon two years ago when the Rays could compete with the Red Sox and Yankees," said Sean Lux, an assistant professor at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of South Florida. "The novelty has worn off.

"What's more shocking is that so few attended Sunday's (Tampa Bay) Buccaneers game," Lux said. "They've got a good team, so this isn't about fan support. Attendance is a good indicator of the local economy, and in the South, unemployment is higher."

It's a weak base to build fan support.

"Folks are worried about their income," said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo, in Charlotte, N.C. "When you're worried about your job and how much money you make, you're not going to be making as many discretionary purchases."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Luis Perez contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8037.

Attendance remains low as Tampa Bay Rays make dramatic playoff push 09/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 10:45am]
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