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Do the Rays have a future in bay area?

The 2009 season will be key to determining whether the Rays can turn short-term excitement into the long-term support needed to keep the team in St. Petersburg.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

The 2009 season will be key to determining whether the Rays can turn short-term excitement into the long-term support needed to keep the team in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG

The upstart Tampa Bay Rays were about to take the field in the World Series. Tropicana Field was gorged with fans and media. A national TV audience looked on. Yet one big question continued to hang in the air.

Do the Rays have a future in the Tampa Bay area?

The answer, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg recently said, may not be clear until next spring, or possibly September.

"To operate here, we have to have sponsors, and have season-ticket holders, and have TV revenue, to have any chance of this thing working," he told a visiting reporter.

Sternberg's remarks could simply be a push for a new stadium. But he has good reason to question whether the Tampa Bay area can support a baseball team in the long run.

Despite two relatively large population centers and a history of spring training, the Tampa Bay area remains one of the poorest, oldest and most fractured communities with a major league baseball team, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of the 25 U.S. baseball markets.

Yes, attendance increased dramatically this year, but it remains near the bottom of either league. And season ticket sales rank next to last, the team says.

Tampa Bay might be a market just getting its baseball legs.

And even that may not save the team.

Trying to take root

The Times reviewed bellwether population and demographics for baseball's 25 U.S. metropolitan areas (four areas have two teams, and the Toronto Blue Jays play in Canada).

The findings show consistently that the Tampa Bay area is in a difficult position compared to other markets:

• We make less money. Tampa Bay area workers earn less per capita than all but two major league baseball cities — Milwaukee and Phoenix — according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Workers who make less spend less on a luxury such as baseball.

• Our cost of living is high. Ten of baseball's 25 markets are cheaper to live in than the Tampa Bay area, according to a study that tracks housing, food, utility, and transportation costs. In fact, Tampa Bay's cost of living is closer to Chicago's than Houston's.

• We are older. The Tampa Bay area is the second-oldest baseball market behind Pittsburgh. The median age in Tampa Bay is 40.7; it's 34 in San Diego. Older markets means fewer families and fewer children — two qualities typically important to attendance.

• We aren't from here. The Tampa Bay area is one of only three markets where a majority of its U.S.-born residents came from out of state, according to census figures. (Phoenix and Washington are the other two.) The Tampa Bay area ranks last in the number of residents who were born in state — less than 900,000 out of a total population of more than 2.71-million.

The numbers help illustrate why Boston Red Sox fans have at times outnumbered Rays fans at Tropicana Field.

Of course, it's easier now than ever to say Tampa Bay can support a professional baseball team.

The Rays sold out eight home playoff games within minutes this year, and attendance this season increased a major leagueleading 30 percent.

Past that one-sided view, however, lies a different reality. The Rays shared baseball's second-best record in 2008 but finished 26th out of 30 teams in tickets sold.

But it's not even a question of fan loyalty or fan apathy. It's simple supply and demand.

J.C. Bradbury, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia who specializes in the economics of baseball, says the limited number of fans the Rays have to reach puts them at a disadvantage compared to other ballclubs. But baseball chose the Tampa Bay area for a reason, he said. Even if it's operating on the margins.

"Baseball put a team in Tampa Bay because they thought it could make money there," Bradbury said.

Mid or small market?

Rays team president Matt Silverman calls Tampa Bay a midsize baseball market that he hopes will support a team accordingly.

But putting the Tampa Bay area in the middle of the pack might be a stretch.

In terms of population, Tampa Bay ranks 18th out of 25 U.S. baseball markets. (Population totals include Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties).

Yet, Tampa Bay has a unique and problematic geography — namely the bay separating Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Fans, the team and community leaders agree that a less than 10-mile-wide gap has created a chasm much larger.

"It's like a different world here," said Florida Chamber of Commerce president Mark Wilson, who moved to Tampa from Chicago and now lives in Tallahassee. "It's nothing you can really explain. It's not a long drive, but people think it is."

The distance is represented in other ways. While the entire area is being asked to support the Rays at the turnstiles, only Pinellas residents are on the hook to pay for a new stadium.

The parochial funding scenario means less than 35 percent of the area is being asked to fund 100 percent of the public cost of a new ballpark. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa was built the same way.

As part of its analysis, the Times calculated the population within five miles of 20 stadiums, including Tropicana Field. Is Tampa Bay at a disadvantage compared to more densely populated cities?

While the Rays have fewer people within a short distance than most teams, it's difficult to pinpoint it as a problem, data show.

Pittsburgh and Miami, which had lower attendance than the Rays last season, ranked near the top in population density around their ballparks.

Another measure — and one the Rays themselves tout — is the size of the Tampa Bay area television market.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the Tampa Bay area is the country's 13th-largest television market. Among baseball's 29 U.S. ballclubs, the Rays rank 17th in TV households. Nielsen's rankings count Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The numbers improve when the Rays are televised on Fox Sports Net Florida, a cable channel that reaches more than 5-million homes.

One market study that focuses solely on the potential television audience says the Rays rank in the middle of Major League Baseball.

But a broader study performed by Baseball Prospectus managing director Nate Silver ranked the Rays 26th out of 30 teams.

"Unless dolphins start coming to baseball games," Silver said, "you'd rather not have your city surrounded by water."

Time will tell

For all the numbers, the viability of a market may depend on incalculable factors.

Take St. Louis.

A metropolitan area roughly the same size as Tampa Bay's. A smaller television market.

But a history and tradition of winning baseball has fueled the Cardinals in a way the Rays simply cannot match. The Cardinals have sold more than 3-million tickets 10 out of the past 11 years. The Rays have sold more than 2-million tickets only once during the same time.

As Sternberg said, time may be the best indicator of baseball's future in the Tampa Bay area.

Will enough fans eventually fall in love with the Rays?

And how long will Sternberg and baseball commissioner Bud Selig wait to find out?

Maury Brown, founder and president of bizofbaseball.com, said it's too early for answers.

"We've got one year to look at. We've got one successful season," said Brown, who worked with Portland community leaders on a plan to relocate the Montreal Expos to Oregon. "It's very difficult if not impossible to extrapolate how it will work in the long run. Anyone who says they can is lying."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Do the Rays have a future in bay area? 11/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 4:37pm]

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