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Attendance may always be a problem for Tampa Bay area sports teams

ST. PETERSBURG — So the Buccaneers looked at all the empty seats at Raymond James Stadium in 2009 and decided they had better lower the prices on a handful of tickets for 2010. As reactions go, this one seems proper and sensible.

The Bucs were never shy about raising prices when they were on the other side of success, so giving fans a break in more difficult times seems to be a prudent business decision. Except, perhaps, for this one drawback:

I'm not sure it's going to matter.

At various points every calendar year, I am reminded of Tampa Bay's struggles as a sports market. It could be when the Rays are playing the Phillies in a rematch of the World Series and draw a smaller crowd than the Pirates-Indians or Padres-Mariners on the same night. It could be when I take my son to a Lightning game and find groups of scalpers with tickets in their hands and panicked expressions on their faces. Or it could be when the Bucs have to fudge ticket sales to keep their games from being blacked out on local television.

This topic is certainly not new. I've written about the market's shortcomings before, and it always seems to trigger a fair amount of angry reactions. Folks point out the economy stinks. And it does. They point out local ownership groups do not spend extravagantly. And that's true. They point out won-loss records, parking prices, stadium locations and crappy $8 nachos. And I can't argue with any of that.

But here's the point I keep coming back to:

Those same complaints exist in a lot of markets across the nation, and yet Tampa Bay still seems to lag behind most communities when it comes to pro ticket sales. The Rays? They were 23rd in Major League Baseball in attendance in '09. The Bucs? They were 27th. The Lightning? It is currently 22nd in the NHL for the '09-10 season. And it's only getting worse.

A recent study by Portfolio.com/bizjournals identified Tampa Bay as one of the four most overextended sports markets in America, along with Denver, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

The Rays were hopeful a World Series appearance would get them on a trajectory toward the middle of the pack in attendance. Instead, they fell nearly 600,000 shy of MLB's average attendance for the season, and they will probably be even further off the pace in 2010.

The Lightning is on the cusp of the playoff picture for the first time in a couple of seasons, yet the St. Pete Times Forum appears half-empty on a near-regular basis. And while the Bucs' announced average of 62,991 was near the bottom of the NFL in '09, the actual average number of people in the stadium was a stunning 49,621.

The Rays were identified by ESPN as the "most affordable team in professional sports," and it didn't seem to help. Team Marketing Report recently reported the Lightning had the lowest average ticket price in the NHL, and it still doesn't seem to help.

So should we be pointing fingers at ourselves as sports fans?

Absolutely not. I don't buy that many tickets to games, and I have no right to shame anyone else into buying tickets. Every individual has perfectly sound reasons for spending, or not spending, as he sees fit.

But that doesn't mean we can't take a critical look at the market itself, and question what it will take for adequate support.

"Each market has its own unique challenges. Ours is marked by widespread geography and a scarcity of large, corporate headquarters. We can find challenging circumstances in almost every sports market," Rays president Matt Silverman said. "In almost all cases, they are able to overcome those challenges."

The popular chorus from fans is they will show up to watch a winner. Except that hasn't been necessarily true here. The Rays had the second-best record in baseball in 2008, and were 26th in attendance. The Lightning is 11-6-5 at home this season and is still not drawing.

"We believe this year's Lightning team is more compelling and exciting than it has been in some time, and we have some great players to watch," Lightning executive vice president Bill Wickett said. "We have made great strides in re-establishing the St. Pete Times Forum as a difficult arena for visiting teams to play in, and we look forward to more and more fans joining us as the season progresses.

"Attendance is normally lower in the fall and higher in the spring, especially if we are in the race. … The games last week were concerning, though."

Once again, this is not a slap at you. Or your neighbor. Or anyone else around here.

It is merely an observation that seems to reinforce itself every season in Tampa Bay.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Attendance may always be a problem for Tampa Bay area sports teams 01/19/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 10:18am]

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