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Rays: Weekend attendance is fine; weekdays' not so much

ST. PETERSBURG — Attendance at Tampa Bay Rays games inched forward in 2009 while Major League Baseball as a whole was losing fans.

No thanks to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

That's the message the Rays presented Wednesday to the ABC Coalition, a self-appointed group of community leaders who are studying prospects for a new baseball stadium.

Saturday and Sunday attendance at Rays games, bolstered by concerts and discounts for families, rose 8 percent and 15.5 percent respectively last year and almost matched Major League Baseball's weekend average, said Rays vice president Michael Kalt.

But midweek attendance declined 7 percent and kept the Rays' total fan count in the bottom third of all teams.

Weekday drive times to Tropicana Field from outside St. Petersburg are a big reason, Kalt said. Many of the Tampa Bay area's largest employers are centered from the Pinellas Gateway area through downtown Tampa.

"People feel differently driving distances on the weekends than during the week," he said. "If they have to leave work and pick up the spouse and then go to the game, it's a problem. Everybody's already at home on the weekend."

That notion was supported by Chuck Sykes, chief executive of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises, who presented a report on corporate support for the Rays, which has dwindled steadily since the franchise began in 1996.

In the average major league city, corporations buy two-thirds of season tickets. At the Trop, corporations buy only one-third.

A committee headed by Sykes surveyed the heads of 101 Tampa Bay businesses with at least 100 employees and asked about season tickets.

Almost 9 of 10 said they would consider buying weekday tickets for their company if they could drive to the stadium from work within 30 minutes. They would mainly give the tickets to worthy employees and clients, they said.

But make it a 45-minute drive, and only 30 percent said they would consider weekday tickets.

Yet half were willing to drive 45 minutes for weekend games.

For example, Sykes said, it would take him two hours to drive from his office in downtown Tampa, to his home in New Tampa to pick up his family, then to the Trop and back for a weekday game.

"You are asking other people in counties other than Pinellas to pay in time," he said.

The ABC Coalition has previously studied "trade areas" in the Tampa Bay area and concluded that Gateway, West Shore and downtown Tampa are more central to people's homes and workplaces than the Trop.

But financing and the Rays' contract to play at the Trop until 2027 present huge problems for any Hillsborough location.

That leaves the Gateway as the odds-on choice for any new stadium, said former St. Petersburg council member and County Commissioner Robert Stewart.

"It's where the most people can get to the quickest," he said.

Corporate support for entertainment venues as a whole dropped dramatically last year, the coalition's survey indicated. Forty of the 101 companies surveyed cut their budgets.

Still, 70 companies said they buy corporate tickets to entertainment venues, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being the biggest beneficiary.

Forty-nine companies bought Bucs tickets this year, 43 bought Tampa Bay Lightning tickets, 31 bought Rays tickets.

Even among the 30 Pinellas companies that responded, 22 bought Bucs tickets, and only 11 bought Rays tickets.

The Rays have said in the past that their season-ticket sales are the second lowest in the major leagues, if not the lowest.

Individual fans helped make up the difference. Kalt would not release specific numbers, but when asked if Rays' season tickets rose by 25 percent, he responded, "at least that much."

Many fans put down deposits for 2009 ticket packages at the end of the 2008 season as a way of securing playoff and World Series tickets, he said.

This year's priority will be to keep from losing them, he said.

>>Fast facts

What's next?

• The ABC Coalition hopes to wrap up its findings and present them to city and county officials within the next month or so.

• They will not recommend a specific stadium site, timetable or method of financing, they say.

• They also plan to consult the public through town hall meetings, focus groups or polling.

• They will then incorporate reaction to those presentations into a final report.

Rays: Weekend attendance is fine; weekdays' not so much 10/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 2:10pm]

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