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Tampa Bay Rays' poor attendance a problem everyone plays a part in

ST. PETERSBURG — Best freaking record in baseball, and we're talking about attendance again.

It's like our unique contribution to the world. We have beaches, we have golf courses and we have angry, pointless conversations about attendance at Rays baseball games.

Is it entertaining? No. Is it productive? Not yet. Is it necessary? Apparently so.

I mean, we already knew attendance was going to be weak again in 2010. The Rays pretty much acknowledged that when season ticket sales — which were below 10,000 last season — dropped significantly again in the offseason.

But the juxtaposition of seeing a team with the best record in the game drawing the smallest crowd in the majors (10,691 Wednesday) is pretty jarring, even for a community that has conditioned itself to viewing its stadium glass as half-full instead of half-empty.

So is there anything to be gained by continuing this debate? Certainly not the way it has been going. Because, up to this point, no one is really debating. All they are doing is shouting excuses from their point of view. No one seems willing to acknowledge that the guy on the other side of the argument might have a valid point, too.

Which is why it would help if everyone accepted a few basic truths.

For instance:

Tampa Bay is a weak baseball market. That's not an insult, it is a reality. Forget all the rationalizations about the bad economy or the traffic on the bridges or the catwalks in the stadium. The bottom line is this team has never drawn particularly well. It didn't draw when it was a brand new product. It didn't draw when it won the American League pennant. It is not drawing now.

All you need to know is, after waiting forever for Major League Baseball to arrive, Tampa Bay fans sold out the first game in Tropicana Field history then went six years before the next sellout. In the world of short honey­moons, that's like hooking up with the bartender at your own wedding reception.

Granted, there are valid reasons for this. A lack of major corporations and a dearth of high-paying jobs in the region would be a start. No real community identity would be another cause. But the bottom line is that this is not a strong sports market.

Here's another basic truth:

Stu Sternberg bought into this franchise at a bargain price in May 2004. The Rays had poor attendance back then. They played at the same stadium back then. In other words, Sternberg knew what he was getting into. And it's one of the reasons he got a good deal.

No one denies Sternberg has done a marvelous job since taking over. He has built the team into a winner, he has made Tropicana Field more attractive and has made the Rays a more valuable part of the community.

But he must understand that changes take time.

Here's another one:

Major League Baseball needs to get off its collection of fat wallets. If the NFL can create a stadium-building subsidy, why can't MLB? Baseball officials can cry poor all they want, but as long as a one-dimensional first baseman can get a $125 million extension and the commissioner can make $18 million in salary and expenses, then taxpayers shouldn't be asked to dig quite so deep.

Here's a final one:

St. Petersburg officials can act outraged all they want, but it is their job to look out for the long-term welfare of a community. I don't know if building a new stadium is the right move for St. Petersburg — or Hills­borough County, for that matter — but I do know it is foolish to pretend this is not a legitimate concern. Hiding under the blanket is not a particularly attractive quality in elected officials.

My point in all of these observations is the arguing must end. And it is time that everyone acknowledges the reality of the situation.

"The Tampa Bay Rays won't be playing major-league baseball in this facility in 2027," Sternberg told me recently. "Major League Baseball won't stand for it. My partners in baseball who have to distribute this revenue-sharing money won't stand for it."

So how will this play out?

My guess is Sternberg will bite his tongue the rest of the summer. The team is too good to continue to take attention away from the field.

But, come November, you will see the same thing in Tampa Bay that fans have seen in Oakland and Miami in the past. The Rays will cut payroll, and players will leave town. And ownership will say it was a business decision based on low revenues.

After that, it becomes a community question.

"One way or another, if people care about baseball, collectively the region will figure something out," Sternberg said. "If they don't care about baseball, it will work itself out in another way."

Tampa Bay Rays' poor attendance a problem everyone plays a part in 04/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 8:14am]

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