When Stuart Sternberg took control of the Tampa Bay Rays, people told him that in order to improve dismal attendance at the team's games he needed to first build a winner on the field.
"People said if you win, they will come," Sternberg said.
2008: 97 wins and a trip to the World Series.
2009: A second consecutive winning season (just the second in franchise history).
2010: Again challenging the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Yet attendance is still, well, dismal.
The Rays are averaging a little over 22,000 people a night at Tropicana Field in 2010, which places them 10th in the 14-team American League and 23rd out of 30 in Major League Baseball. Despite a winning team. Despite a popular Saturday night concert series. And despite a cheap tickets, the Rays say.
The disappointing turnstile receipts played prominently into Sternberg's announcement Monday that the team wants to explore options for a new stadium outside St. Petersburg, specifically in Tampa and Hillsborough County. Rays officials are convinced that a new, modern ballpark constructed closer to the region's geographic center could boost attendance by 7,000 to 8,000 fans a game.
"We have learned that it's not just about winning," Sternberg said. "It's not about ticket prices. And it certainly isn't about a lack of interest in this team.
"Our prices have been judged the most affordable in all of professional sports. Our television ratings have grown dramatically. And our standing in the community has never been higher."
Sternberg claims the Rays have done everything to make baseball work in downtown St. Petersburg, including cutting prices to the bottom in all of professional sports.
PolitiFact Florida got a call from the bullpen to check it out.
The Rays directed us to a 2009 fan survey from ESPN Magazine called the Ultimate Standings. The survey ranks teams in each professional sport (baseball, football, hockey and basketball) in eight different categories. Scores in seven of the eight categories came from 50,000 responses to ESPN.com. An eighth category — which tried to measure wins vs. revenue — was computed by researchers at the University of Oregon.
The results were then weighted to create an overall score. The Rays ranked 16th overall out of 122 professional sports teams.
But that's not what we're checking.
One of the individual categories was "Affordability," and specifically asked fans to rate teams in terms of ticket prices, parking prices and concessions prices. According to ESPN, the Rays ranked No. 2 overall in ticket prices, No. 1 in parking prices and No. 5 in concession prices.
That made the Rays the most affordable franchise in all of professional sports, just like Sternberg said.
But we're not sure how much weight the ranking actually should hold.
Take parking, where the Rays ranked first. Depending on the game, it costs anywhere from $10 to $25 to park at Tropicana Field. The New York Mets — who ranked 111th in parking prices in the survey — charge $19 for all games. The San Diego Padres — who ranked 108th in parking — charge less than the Rays, between $8 and $15.
Now, the Rays point out that if you have four people in your car you can park for free. And we'll point out that if you live in New York, Philadelphia, Boston or Washington, you'll most likely take public transportation meaning you won't have to pay for parking either.
Trying to consider the relative cost of tickets is even more challenging. The Rays charge a different price for the same seat depending on who they are playing and what night of the week the game is on. Baseball, of course, also has a built in advantage because teams play 81 home games a year compared to half that for hockey and basketball and just eight regular-season home games for football (Fewer games means a smaller supply of seats, which translates into higher prices).
Still, for the sake of argument, let's see how much it cost to buy an outfield seat at a handful of last Thursday's baseball games — not counting ticket fees.
• Padres at Rays: $17.
• Braves at White Sox: $17.
• Cubs at Mariners: $32.
• Pirates at Rangers: $30.
• Marlins at Orioles: $15.
• Twins at Brewers: $30.
• Giants at Astros: $18.
Of those seven games, the Rays have the second-cheapest outfield seat available. The team that has the cheapest option, the Baltimore Orioles, ranks 61st in terms of ticket pricing, according to ESPN. And the Brewers, who rank fourth in ticket pricing, have the second-most expensive ticket. Any of that make sense?
Doesn't to us either.
And here's the point. Sternberg accurately cites an ESPN study in saying that the Rays have been "judged the most affordable (team) in all of professional sports." But we're not sure an ESPN survey of 50,000 fans represents a true picture of the affordability of the Rays, or any of the other 121 professional sports franchises.
There are so many variables when it comes to ticket pricing — be it the opponent or the day of the week, or parking, or concession prices — that it's hard to make a judgment. Because the survey is suspect, we rate Sternberg's statement Mostly True.