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Low Rays attendance: The economy or fan apathy?

The Rays take the field in late April with plenty of blue seats sitting empty.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

The Rays take the field in late April with plenty of blue seats sitting empty.

ST. PETERSBURG — After all of the 2010 season's home runs and strikeouts and wins and losses, the one number that will be remembered well into the offseason and may determine the fate of the Tampa Bay Rays is this: 23,024.

That's the average attendance at Tropicana Field, ranking it 22nd out of 30 Major League Baseball teams. Throughout the season, as the Rays climbed to the top of baseball's toughest division, the persistence of empty seats became the subject of sports radio chatter, newspaper columns and TV talk shows.

Near the end of the season, after 12,446 attended a game in which the Rays could have clinched, All-Stars Evan Longoria and David Price criticized the fans.

Earlier this month, ESPN cited unnamed sources in reporting that baseball commissioner Bud Selig "instructed Rays management not to make significant financial investments in the area until attendance indicators improve." Michael Kalt, the senior vice president of development and business affairs for the Rays, said he didn't know of any communications on that subject between the club and Selig.

Still, the unsourced report supports the perception that the Rays can't remain competitive in downtown St. Petersburg. Rays officials declined comment for this story, but owner Stu Sternberg said this summer that he wants to explore alternative stadium sites, including Tampa.

But does this season's total attendance of 1,864,999 prove that the Rays can't remain in St. Petersburg?

It raises questions for some, such as Alan Bomstein, a Clearwater contractor and a board member of the ABC Coalition, which was formed last year to review sites for a Rays stadium.

"It's not totally dreadful," Bomstein said. "But they had the best record in the American League with 96 wins, and you would have expected attendance to rise over last year."

Club expectations high

Yet in some respects, 23,000 per game isn't as bad as it's been portrayed, said Neil deMause, editor of the Field of Schemes website and a critic of public funding for sports stadiums.

DeMause said the Rays' attendance wasn't far off the pace of similar markets, such as Cincinnati, which won the National League pennant and drew more than 25,000 a game, placing it 20th, and San Diego, which competed for the National League west crown and drew 26,000 a game, ranking it 18th. The Atlanta Braves didn't sell out in their playoff game this year.

Only a few elite teams — such as the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals and Giants — consistently draw well, he said.

"It's a pretty short list," deMause said. "Everybody else is going to be selling tickets when they are good and not selling when they are not so good. … The Rays will not turn themselves into the Yankees or even the Giants by building a new stadium or moving to Tampa."

But the Rays won big this season, and still didn't meet the club's attendance expectations. In the past, the Rays have said they would like attendance near the league average of about 30,000 a game. In a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board this year, Kalt estimated that a new stadium might get them about half of that 7,000 difference, and a downtown Tampa location would get the other half.

The Rays are locked into an agreement with St. Petersburg, however, that keeps them at Tropicana Field through 2027.

Mayor Bill Foster said the attendance, while disappointing, wasn't a reflection of fan interest. TV viewership was dramatically up this season. Indeed, the Texas Rangers drew a 5.9 share in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for Game 1 of the Division Series. The Rays nearly doubled that with a 9.6 share in Tampa Bay.

Foster blames a bad economy. The fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can't sell out their games despite a 3-1 record, he said, only proves his point.

Foster said there are plenty of signs that the days of big profits for sports teams may be over. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio echoed Foster, and said that cities and counties don't have the largesse to help fund stadiums anymore.

"It's a different era," Iorio said. "Finances are so limited that local government has to focus on providing basic services for its citizens. Something like building a stadium is something that the private sector should do, and maybe it's something it should have been doing all along."

Attendance this year didn't reflect lack of support, Iorio said.

"People have lost their jobs, have had their hours reduced, or haven't seen their wages increase in several years," she said. "In a down economic time, they will cut the family's entertainment expenses first, but that's not a reflection of how we feel about the Rays or the Bucs."

Timing is everything

The Rays' timing couldn't have been worse, said Vince Gennaro, author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball.

Most emerging teams get a boost in the year following their first World Series appearance. The Rays first made it to the Series in 2008, when the economy was collapsing.

"They ended up leaving a lot of cash on the table because the fans couldn't step up in the offseason with season tickets," Gennaro said.

Housing prices in Tampa Bay dropped more than 40 percent during this period, the second largest decline in the nation. The unemployment rate is one of the five highest.

"So I'm sympathetic to Tampa Bay's situation," Gennaro said.

At the same time, however, hard-hit places like Detroit drew an average of 30,000 fans per game. So the stadium's location, condition and outdatedness are contributing to the problem, he said.

"In baseball terms, it's too early to tell if the Rays are viable in this market," he said. "And you certainly wouldn't want to decide that in an economy like this."

Low Rays attendance: The economy or fan apathy? 10/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 16, 2010 11:52pm]

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