Rays need games at Disney to expand fan base

Rays rookie third baseman Evan Longoria signs autographs for fans at the Disney complex, where the team is hoping to build up a fan base after a decade of attendance struggles.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Rays rookie third baseman Evan Longoria signs autographs for fans at the Disney complex, where the team is hoping to build up a fan base after a decade of attendance struggles.

You may have noticed the Tampa Bay Rays played a regular-season game near Orlando on Tuesday night. Then again, considering Tropicana Field looked only a little less empty than on a typical game night, maybe you didn't notice at all.

For a second year in a row, the Rays have moved a regular-season series to a spring training stadium at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex. The stated reason, by ownership, is to broaden their fan base. The unspoken part of that explanation is the owners are not happy with their local fan base.

And, if we're going to be honest about it, they have a point.

Attendance for Rays games this season has been a disappointment. Maybe even a major disappointment.

For years, we have cried about the penny-pinching ways of ownership groups past and present. This was the reason, we said, the Rays were always in last place. And that was the reason, we claimed, fans were reluctant to come to the park.

So, this season, ownership increased its payroll by 81.7 percent. It increased hope exponentially. And, through the first 11 home games, attendance is up 3.4 percent.

Somewhere, there is a disconnect.

Now I am not chastising anyone for not going to a ballgame. That is not my place and, frankly, it would be hypocritical. I tend to spend my entertainment dollars on concerts, plays and never-ending afternoons at Chuck E. Cheese. Other people have their interests.

The point I'm trying to make is Tampa Bay, as a sports market, is not all that impressive. We have a hockey team that has been sold more often than a '74 Pinto. And for a historic series of NCAA Tournament basketball games last month, the St. Pete Times Forum looked half-empty to the rest of the nation.

Yet none of that compares to the decade-long blind date the Rays and their fans have been on.

Now I understand there are plenty of reasons why Tropicana Field is routinely three-quarters empty. Combine a last-place team with an unattractive stadium in a poor location, and you can pretty much pick your box seat most nights. Throw in the scout-, newspaper-, police-, partner- and raccoon-hating high jinks of the previous owner, and you have the makings of a historic run of bad crowds.

And, folks, that's where we are today.

The Rays have been last in the American League in attendance for the past seven seasons. Since 1947, only three other franchises (St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators, Montreal Expos) have been last in their league for seven consecutive seasons.

None made it to eight. That's because they all had moved to new cities by then.

So it should come as no surprise that the Rays are trying to boost attendance by looking 100 miles down the road. It should come as no surprise that they are seeking a new stadium to boost revenue streams.

And, if the stadium does not get built, it should come as no surprise when the Rays begin listening to offers from other communities, including Tampa.

If you don't think other cities haven't already contacted the Rays, you are mistaken. Officials in Charlotte, Mexico City, Portland, Ore., and San Antonio, Texas, follow the news. They know the attendance figures.

Just as Rick Dodge once did for St. Petersburg, there is some community representative in those places in charge of developing a relationship with the owners of struggling franchises. Right now, the Rays and Marlins are the obvious targets for those baseball-sniffing locales.

Of course, talk of a move is premature. The stadium issue has not been resolved, and the Rays lease would make a move financially cumbersome. Also, none of the cities available is a can't-miss market.

So I'm not bringing it up as a scare tactic. I'm also not trying to convince anyone a stadium needs to be built. Government officials and, perhaps, St. Petersburg voters will make that decision.

All I'm doing is pointing out the reality of the situation.

Look at teams that were routinely near the bottom of major-league baseball attendance in the 1980s and '90s. Cleveland, Seattle, San Diego, Minnesota, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. They all eventually had new stadiums built.

And the team that struggled the most — the Montreal Expos — had MLB's blessing to move to Washington.

In the end, I'm not trying to blame the average Tampa Bay fan.

This mess is simply a case of critical mass. Of a market rich in numbers but not in corporate dollars. Of a population with allegiances around the country, but with shallow roots here. Of a stadium that is entirely functional, but not at all enticing. Of a franchise that once tried cornering the market on stupid decisions.

There are plenty of reasonable explanations why the Rays have been at the bottom of the league in attendance since 2001.

But if the team continues to grow on the field without an accompanying bump at the box office, those explanations are not going to sound reasonable much longer.

There is, after all, a certain prestige that comes with being a big-league city.

There is also a high cost.

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

Rays need games at Disney to expand fan base 04/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 12:01pm]

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