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Rays' attendance: hit, not homer

It was a chance for Tampa Bay to show off the Devil Rays to the nation. Prime time. ESPN.

Vince Naimoli knew the country would be watching last Sunday, so he made a plea to baseball fans: Show up. Please.

What the nation saw, however, was plenty of empty seats. Only 26,882 people bought tickets for the Rays-Angels game, about 60 percent of Tropicana Field's capacity.

It was a particularly striking sign that fan fervor hasn't been as strong as expected in this young season. The Rays' average attendance is respectable _ 11th among the major leagues' 30 teams _ but it doesn't come close to the first-year numbers posted by other expansion teams of recent years.

The Rays averaged 31,605 tickets sold for their first 13 games in 45,200-seat Tropicana Field. The opener was the only sellout. In Phoenix, the Arizona Diamondbacks have averaged 46,355 tickets sold for their first 12 home games, best in the majors. They've had six sellouts.

Tampa Bay's attendance is also far behind the pace set by Miami and Denver when those cities' teams began play in 1993.

All this is a surprise to Rays officials, who have fielded a respectable team but not a marketing effort to match.

There have been no campaigns designed to sell seats not already taken by the Rays' 22,100 season ticket holders. Many fans don't realize that tickets are as cheap as $1.50 and $3. And only now is the team gearing up its group sales.

Naimoli, the team's managing general partner, concedes his marketing staff is off to a slow start, and vows to improve the Rays' strategy. But he still predicts the team will sell 3-million tickets this season, an average of 37,000 a game. May will be better, he says, with big draws such as the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners coming to town.

"At this point I still think all of us are in a learning process, the fans as well as the team," he said. "So I'm not displeased. I'm not tremendously happy with attendance, but I'm not displeased."

Ask fans why attendance is low and you get plenty of theories: School is still in session, which hurts weeknight turnout. Teams such as the A's and Angels weren't big attractions. There are 81 home games, so there's no rush. And some people are wary of the cost and hassles of a night out at the ballpark.

A packed stadium is important to the Devil Rays' bottom line. Although the team doesn't give out financial details, it says ticket sales are the largest component of revenue, as much as 40 percent. Concessions are another 10 percent or so.

But attendance also is important in other ways.

It can determine the fate of nearby restaurants and bars, many of which are struggling.

It helps the city of St. Petersburg, which collects 50 cents for every fan who attends a Rays game. The city's take would grow to $1 per person after the Rays exceed 3.3-million fans through the doors in the regular season.

And it's a measure of Tampa Bay's status as a big-league sports community: The area's pent-up appetite for baseball was a selling point when Naimoli's ownership group landed the team.

Slow start in marketing

Gimmicks and giveaways don't consistently fill seats, major league marketing officials say. Wild promotions such as 1979's ill-fated Disco Demolition Night in Chicago _ when a disc jockey burned disco records and a riot ensued _ are now left to the minor leagues.

So while the Rays are giving away everything from phone cards to Beanie Babies on promotional nights, they depend more on traditional marketing such as ad campaigns and image-building community appearances by the players.

The team got off to a slow start in ticket marketing because the organization was preoccupied with securing corporate sponsorships, Naimoli said. Many major-league teams put an emphasis on selling blocks of tickets to companies and community groups, but the Rays didn't hire a group sales director until March.

The key, Naimoli said, is to get people to come to Tropicana Field once.

"I think the experience of being here will keep people coming back," he said. "They'll find there isn't a traffic problem and, boy, there are all these different kinds of food, and, yeah, the food prices aren't unreasonable, and we had a great time."

Sports marketing experts are surprised by the Rays' lack of marketing creativity, as if the team thought it could just open the doors at Tropicana Field and start counting the sellouts.

"I find it strange they aren't doing more to sell to groups and to establish their identity," said Kathleen Davis, a Florida Atlantic University business professor who specializes in sports management. "You have to get people into the stadium who might be hesitant to come."

So far, the Rays have been adamantly opposed to offering multigame ticket packages to non-season ticket holders, saying people should buy season tickets if they want such deals. But a number of other teams pitch such packages, along with special strategies to sell the cheaper seats:

On game days, the Diamondbacks make a big deal out of selling 360 outfield seats for $1 each. The idea: introduce the game to people who are worried about the price.

The Marlins sell a package of four tickets along with hot dogs, drinks, peanuts and a game program for $34.

The San Diego Padres' "Compadres" program works much like a frequent-flyer plan. As fans go to more games, they earn discounts on merchandise and concessions. For season ticket holders, it's an incentive to show up. For others, it's an incentive to come back.

"Marketing baseball is a major challenge these days, as everything from soccer to skateboarding gains popularity," said Tom Boyd, a marketing professor at Miami University in Ohio who is studying how much promotions help baseball attendance. "Offering special deals on seats carries a far greater PR value than the value that comes from the sales themselves."

The Diamondbacks comparison

It's no surprise to fans that marketing the Rays in April was a tough sell.

"The weather is nice, so there are a lot of other things to do," said Chris Hurd, 23, a Tampa real-estate broker who was attending his first Rays game Monday night. "And I think the hype about the cost and hassle has turned some people off."

Susan Hubbard, 32, an Ellenton bank branch manager, thinks it's difficult for parents to bring their kids during the school year. "That will change when school lets out," she said.

Hurd and Hubbard both said they were eager to come back to Tropicana Field. But other first-time fans might be tougher to lure back.

"I only came to the game because my friends did," said Leah Negri, 17, a student at Lakeside Christian School in Clearwater. "I think baseball is boring."

No one disputes that the Rays' attendance is respectable among major-league teams. "There are plenty of teams that would give their right arm to be drawing 32,000 people a game," said Scott Brubaker, marketing boss for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But many expected attendance to be much higher because of the novelty of an expansion team. And official attendance figures are higher than the number of people who actually show up. Major league attendance is based on tickets sold, including all those season-ticket holders, not on how many people come through the door.

Besides lagging behind Arizona, Tampa Bay's attendance is far below the early performance of the 1993 expansion teams, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies. Those teams averaged 42,186 and 58,940, respectively, in the first 13 home games of their inaugural seasons.

In particular, comparisons with the Diamondbacks are inevitable, and they show why the Rays face a stiff marketing challenge:

The Diamondbacks play in $355-million Bank One Ballpark, a technological marvel with natural grass, a retractable roof that opens in 4{ minutes and a swimming pool behind the outfield fence. Though the $250-million Tropicana Field has drawn good reviews, it doesn't compare from a "gee whiz" standpoint.

Bank One Ballpark is next to Phoenix's 5-year-old basketball/hockey arena downtown. Fans have developed a habit of going downtown for games. In west-central Florida, going to downtown St. Petersburg at night is a new experience for many people.

The Phoenix metropolitan area has 2.7-million people, more than the 2.2-million in Tampa Bay. (Denver's metro area has 2.2-million people, and Miami's has 3.44-million.) And while income levels in Phoenix and Tampa Bay are similar, there's a big difference in age.

The median age in Phoenix is 33.9, compared with 40.8 in Tampa Bay. Younger people _ especially parents of young children _ are crucial to a baseball team's fan base.

But Diamondbacks marketer Brubaker says demographics and the initial surge of enthusiasm go only so far. "It turns out our marketplace was even hungrier for baseball than we anticipated," he said. "I think interest will pick up in Tampa Bay."

Businesses still waiting

Two and three blocks away from Tropicana Field, bar and restaurant owners are wondering where the people are on game nights.

At the Mecca of Sports, co-owner Tom Gregg tried offering free game parking for customers, but many responded by buying only a $1.25 cup of coffee after the game. Gregg is giving up on the fans, dropping "of Sports" from the establishment's name and switching to a nightclub theme at night.

Restaurants closer to the stadium, such as Ferg's Sports Bar and the Silver King Tavern, say they are doing well, but that game-day business is about 35 percent less than they expected. Many restaurant owners figured on 40,000 fans a game.

At the Extra Inning Ballpark Cafe on Central Avenue, several blocks from the stadium, games actually have slowed business on weekend nights, owner Ed Mlotkowski said.

"We had built up a good clientele on weekends in the year before baseball got here, and now many of those people have been reluctant to come down here on game nights," he said.

He wishes parking cost less. Only three other major-league teams charge as much as the Rays' $10. "In some cases, parking costs more than the ticket," he said. "That's ridiculous."

But restaurant owners complain that the media scared off many people with stories about parking, traffic and safety concerns.

"I don't think people realize how easy it is to get down here, and how safe it is here at night," the Mecca's Gregg said. "Hey, it's so lit up on Central Avenue you have to wear sunglasses at 11 p.m."

For the Rays' Naimoli, who runs the team's weekly sales meetings, the challenge is to get the word out: Traffic's not a problem, the stadium's great and good seats are available.

If the ticket numbers continue to disappoint, the team may be forced to rethink its entire marketing effort.

Most major league teams spend between $500,000 and $1-million on direct marketing efforts, though the Anaheim Angels, owned by Walt Disney Co., spend $4-million. The Rays are at "the lower end" of that range, Naimoli said.

He realizes fans shouldn't have to learn about things such as parking and ticket options on their own.

"The onus is on us," he said, "to continually put out things so the education process will increase."

_ Times researchers Barbara Oliver and Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.

Rays home attendance

3-31 45,369

4-1 30,109

4-2 28,261

4-3 31,816

4-4 36,599

4-5 33,733

4-13 31,969

4-14 34,337

4-24 27,767

4-25 33,395

4-26 26,882

4-27 25,484

4-28 25,138

Source: Devil Rays

Text for Major League Baseball attendance chart not available electronically. Please see microfilm.