ST. PETERSBURG — Last week's matchup between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox should have been one of the season's biggest draws.
The division rivals — nearly tied in the standings — are slugging it out in the middle of a pennant race. But the Tuesday night game at Tropicana Field drew a scant 19,902.
"That's an embarrassment, a travesty," said Alan Bomstein, a member of the ABC Coalition, which studied possible new stadium sites for the Rays. "This is the problem."
Since the franchise's second season in 1999, the Rays have lagged behind average major-league baseball attendance. Poor play was blamed — until the Rays went to the World Series. They have remained competitive in the two years since.
Last month, owner Stuart Sternberg said he wanted out of Tropicana Field, which the ABC Coalition concluded was too far from the region's population base. He's eyeing Tampa and Hillsborough County for a new home.
But even Tampa is no sure bet, which Sternberg alluded to when he said there were five other markets that could better support a franchise.
Is the Tampa Bay fan base that shaky? Are there characteristics within this region that make it unlikely to support a team, even a winning one? Is the team's attendance rank of 24th out of 30 teams proof that there's a lack of support here?
"When the (Tampa Bay) Lightning won, they drew," Bomstein said. "When the Bucs won, they drew. The Rays win, and they draw mediocre. So it keeps coming back to attendance. What makes this different?"
From the time that the Tampa Bay area landed a franchise, there have been questions about whether a team could make it here.
In 1995, St. Petersburg leaders were told by city staff to expect crowds that matched the league's prestrike average of 30,000. This came as officials were considering terms of the contract that binds the team to Tropicana Field until 2027.
At the national level, there was skepticism.
A month after St. Petersburg landed the Rays, the New York Times surveyed 55 metro areas and concluded 19 couldn't support major-league baseball. Included was Tampa Bay, which the survey found lacked a high percentage of men between 18 and 54 and a population that earned above the national average in per capita income.
The club's 1998 inaugural season seemed to prove skeptics wrong. It drew 2.5 million fans, well above average.
But the very next year the club's attendance dropped below average, and hasn't caught up since.
When Sternberg bought a portion of the team in 2004, he hired the San Diego firm Matthews, Evans and Albertazzi to conduct fan research.
"Sternberg didn't go into it thinking that Tampa Bay was different than other markets," said Jim Matthews, the firm's CEO. "At the time, it was easy to think that they didn't draw because they didn't win. He was hungry to learn about what fans thought of the team."
The research, compiled in focus groups of season-ticket holders, found numerous aggravations among fans.
One was the team's original majority owner, Vince Naimoli. While other expansion teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Florida Marlins fielded winners, the Rays foundered. In addition, Naimoli's tight-fisted control of the team turned off several civic groups and businesses.
"Naimoli wasn't liked by the fans," Matthews said. "They thought he was arrogant. And that made it hard for them to like the team."
Which led to a second obstacle. The Rays landed in a region whose history with major-league baseball dates to 1914 when the St. Louis Browns picked St. Petersburg for their spring training. Teams such as the New York Mets, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies had trained here for years before the Rays arrived. And, in 1996, the New York Yankees left Fort Lauderdale for spring training in Tampa.
The result is that the Rays have had to compete for the loyalties of their hometown fans, many of whom only recently moved here from cities that had teams.
"Tampa-St. Pete is a baseball town," Matthews said. "There's a lot of fans. But the loyalty is spread around."
A 2005 St. Petersburg Times survey of 400 fans backed up Matthews' research. Only 28 percent said the Rays were their favorite team and 37 percent said they weren't Rays fans.
Matthews saved his notes from the focus groups.
"Everyone's rooting for other teams, and it's annoying," one fan commented.
"Second to the Yankees here," another fan said.
The Yankee factor has hurt, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said. George Steinbrenner, the owner, makes Tampa his home. Its star player, Derek Jeter, does, too. A radio station, WHBO-AM 1040 (ESPN), carries Yankees games.
"This franchise is still a baby," Foster said. "And it has to compete with a team that has a stronghold in Tampa. I was driving in Tampa the other day and I saw two buildings with Steinbrenner's name on them. That can't help the Rays."
Competition between the Yankees and the Rays helps explain how fragmented the area is, said Marc Ganis, a sports analyst in Chicago.
"Those of us who know the Tampa Bay sports market have said for years that no matter how good the team is, it can't compete either in downtown St. Petersburg or downtown Tampa," Ganis said. "Doing one or the other splits the market in two. And half of the Tampa Bay market cannot support the team."
Ganis said it would be better to center the stadium close to the Howard Frankland Bridge, either in the Gateway area or West Shore.
The lack of corporations isn't a serious drawback, he said. All major metro areas have banks, utilities, health care and cell phone companies that can "step up," he said.
More of a factor, he said, is the dearth of baseball's core demographic. Roughly 40 percent of Tampa Bay's population is men ages 15 to 44, the lowest of the 25 metro areas with a team.
Others suggest the Rays simply want too much.
When attendance is weighed against population, Tampa Bay ranks eighth in attendance per capita, said Philip Porter, a University of South Florida economist.
"It doesn't appear that Tampa is a bad baseball market," Porter said. "I don't see how Tampa Bay can be any more supportive of the team."
There's no question that the Rays' success on the field has stoked interest. Attendance climbed 30 percent in 2008 — the biggest jump in baseball — when overall league attendance dropped. It went up again by 4 percent in 2009 when league attendance again dropped. It has dipped slightly this year, but Rays games on TV dominate the ratings.
Porter said markets often mentioned as possible homes for baseball, such as Portland, Ore., San Antonio, Texas, and Las Vegas, aren't as strong as Tampa Bay. He doesn't believe Sternberg's claim that he loses money on the franchise.
"The Rays are doing very well financially," Porter said. "They just want more money. It's time for our elected leaders to stand up and call their bluff."
St. Petersburg leaders say they won't consider a new stadium unless the Rays agree to stay in the city. Until then, officials will defend Tropicana Field as viable.
Attendance will continue to climb as a loyal fan base is developed, said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran.
"When I was growing up, I was a Cardinals fan because of spring training," she said. "It's only been recently that the Rays have been good. It will just take time to build a generation that thinks of the Rays as their team."
Games like Tuesday night are explained away as anomalies.
"There was a torrential downpour before the game," Curran said. "That drove a lot of fans away."
"When there's a heavy rain, people typically don't come," said Rick Mussett, the city's senior administrator for development.
Mussett pointed out that the Rays drew 24,356 against the Red Sox the next night when it didn't rain.
Overall the series drew an average of 24,262 — or about 5,000 short of the league average.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.