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Rays 20th season in search for fans, wins

ST. PETERSBURG — They've changed their colors from purple to green to blue. Exorcised the devil in shortening their name under new ownership. Made all kinds — good, bad and certainly interesting — of memories, highlighted by the stirring 2008 World Series run.

But as the Rays open their 20th season today, what they haven't yet done is prove if Major League Baseball can be successful in the Tampa Bay market.

That is going to take more time.

Time to work through the bureaucratic, political, legal and financial issues of getting a new stadium built to theoretically provide them with greater revenues than Tropicana Field and allow them to be more competitive.

And time for the generation of fans who grew up calling the Rays their own to mature into ticket buyers who boost what has been among the majors' lowest attendance much of that time, including dead last in four of the past five seasons.

At least that's what the Rays and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred say.

Others, including former top baseball officials, wonder if that will be enough. The history in some other markets, including across the state in Miami, is not necessarily promising. And the longer it takes for progress, speculation will amplify the team could end up leaving the market.

"The key to the future success of the Rays is finding the best stadium location and getting a major-league quality facility built in Tampa-St. Pete," Manfred told the Tampa Bay Times. "The rest of the operation, as evidenced by the success that they had not that many years ago, I believe is a strong, professional organization. And if they had the support I believe would come with a new facility, the Rays would be just fine for the long haul."

Resolving the stadium odyssey — with at least site selection expected by the end of the year — would be significant, but it is not the only issue keeping the Rays from being a bigger hit.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who took over for the 2006 season, acknowledged that just getting a shiny new facility with money-making features won't be enough, as they still, even after 19 years, have to grow the fan base to fill it.

"It's more than the stadium," Sternberg said. "This market, the Tampa Bay region, from Orlando down through Port Charlotte and then some into Naples, that region should be able to, in theory, have a successful baseball team that is not concerned about its future or wherewithal. As opposed to, 'Yes, we're not the (New York) Yankees or (Boston) Red Sox or (Chicago) Cubs,' but, 'We're solidly Dallas and St. Louis and Detroit.' It doesn't feel like we'll be at that point, which doesn't mean we can't get to somewhere in the lower middle of the pack.

"It's going to take a lot of time. And if it's going to happen, it will take a generational approach to it, and the region growing up with some real businesses."

Sternberg's theory is that fans who were young kids when the Rays finally got good in 2008 — after finishing last in nine of their first 10 seasons — are just now becoming decision-making adults and, more importantly, potential ticket buyers.

"That's been my mantra all along, a fan base is built generationally," Sternberg said. "That's been my plea to MLB. Whether it was in Kansas City . . . or other places where fan bases are allowed to develop over the course of a couple of generations.

"Even though the team has been around since the late '90s . . . those first 10 years or so didn't give people a lot of opportunity or reason to get vested in the team. That generational thing can take some time."

But should it take this long?

Maybe not.

"I think 20 years is enough time," said Bill Giles, chairman emeritus of the Philadelphia Phillies and a key member of the expansion committee that awarded the Tampa Bay franchise in March 1995 to a group led by former owner Vince Naimoli.

"It hasn't turned out as well as I thought, I will say that. I thought Tampa Bay would be more successful at drawing people than it has. So I've been a little disappointed it hasn't done better."

Giles acknowledged he has not kept up with the specifics, but isn't certain that a new stadium alone will be enough to make the franchise more successful.

Former commissioner Fay Vincent, who served from 1989-92 when Tampa Bay interests were aggressively pursuing a team via relocation or expansion, said it's been "disheartening" to see the lack of attendance and excitement in the market.

Vincent, who watches a lot of Rays games while living part time in Vero Beach, said he believes they can overcome the economic and competitive hurdles to be more successful, but a new, more centrally located facility is an imperative first step.

"The St. Pete stadium from day one was always a question mark," Vincent said. "When we first put the team in there, we knew it was a very seriously flawed location and ballpark, and it hasn't been upgraded much.

"It breaks my heart to see a good team, and they've had some wonderful teams, and they can't draw flies."

A similar scenario played out in South Florida, and it hasn't turned out well.

Marlins ownership for years pushed, pulled and started the dance of threatening to relocate before finally getting a new stadium built largely at public expense. But after an initial splash, their promise of additional revenues leading to an expanded payroll were broken, as for the last four years they have been in the bottom four teams in attendance and payroll.

Marlins baseball operations president Michael Hill, who used to work for the Rays, said it takes winning to prod what he terms "passionate fan bases" in both Florida markets, that they come to the ballpark when "it's the place to be."

"I think that's both of our goals, to create a product that brings people to the ballpark consistently and creates an exciting product on the field that keeps them coming," Hill said. "It's been the big question on a lot of minds."

Manfred said the Florida market is important to MLB, that it is "committed to doing what's necessary to make both of those franchises successful."

Specific to Tampa Bay, he said MLB considers it a "non-traditional" Florida area. "It's not like it's a retirement community," he said. "It's a vibrant young growing area that is certainly big enough to support Major League Baseball."

Attendance and a new stadium are only parts of Rays' business equation.

"Their economics are tough," said Vincent. "The television market doesn't give them the terrific payday the way it does in other places. That franchise is operating with some big handicaps."

Sometime in the next few years, though Sternberg won't say exactly when, the Rays are due for a new TV deal, which could add millions in additional revenue.

Though ratings are usually solid — in the valuable territory of the nation's 11th largest TV market— they dropped nearly 30 percent during last year's rough season from 2015, Sternberg is confident they will rebound with better play. "We had a historically bad stretch," he said. "It was difficult for me to watch. So I don't fault anybody for saying, 'The heck with it' — and click."

Also, he said radio ratings have been "tremendous" and web hits "fine," though near last among the 30 teams.

There are on-field challenges as well.

With a payroll near the bottom of the majors, and sometimes barely third as much as the division foes Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays are typically battling uphill in terms of talent and depth, often churning their roster and trading successful and popular players before they start making too much money.

Since an impressive run of making the playoffs four times in six years, the Rays have had three straight losing seasons, and this season doesn't look particularly promising to end that skid.

Showing they can be successful since the October 2014 departure of baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman (to the Dodgers) and popular and successful manager Joe Maddon (to the Cubs, where he won a World Series) remains another issue.

With the Tropicana Field use agreement expiring after the 2027 season, the sense of urgency in resolving the Rays' future will only increase, as will speculation about relocation if it isn't.

Sternberg, who still lives in New York, has never hinted at moving the team. And he said he has had no thoughts, despite inquiries — and a bottom line he says is in red — of selling the team, which has greatly appreciated in value, estimated by Forbes to be worth a hefty $650 million, though still lowest in the majors.

Manfred said he expects Sternberg to stick with it. "I have never ever in any conversation with Stu had the sense that Stu is a seller," he said. "I think Stu is absolutely committed to making it work, and making in work in Tampa Bay."

Can that happen?

Players union chief Tony Clark, who played in the first game at the Trop on March 31, 1998, with Detroit, said his staff has heard enough of the conversations to be "optimistic" they will "lead down the path of something positive for all involved."

Manfred said that at some point — and he is careful to not even hint at when — if "it appears that the process has run its course without a new stadium, Stu and I are going to have to sit down and evaluate what the alternatives are."

But Manfred said the ongoing conversations on both sides of Tampa Bay have him "optimistic" there will be a workable plan — though well aware of potential new legislative challenges brewing in Tallahassee — for a new stadium, which in turn will give the Rays the resources to be more successful.

"A new modern facility properly located with a team that's competitive will draw in that market," Manfred said. "That's why we put the team there in the first place. And we continue to believe that's true."

It's a 19-year-old question. And counting.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

The first

19 seasons

Here is how it worked out in other markets similar in size to Tampa Bay in the first 19 seasons with a major-league team.

Minneapolis (Twins)Phoenix (Diamondbacks)Seattle* (Mariners)South Florida (Marlins)Tampa Bay (Rays)
Years1961-791998-20161977-851993-20111998-2016
Average attendance13,71830,28815,82220,45518,371
Best season18,065 ('65)44,571 ('98)25,096 ('94)37,838 ('93)30,942 ('98)
Years in league top five114030
Years in league last five710161517
Total winning percentage.523.488.438.477.462
Times in playoffs35124
World Series/won0/11/10/02/21/0
*Had a team in 1969 for one season.

Compiled from baseball-reference.com data, information from Times recearcher Caryn Baird.

Rays 20th season in search for fans, wins 04/01/17 [Last modified: Sunday, April 2, 2017 1:19am]
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