TAMPA — When it comes to filling a ballpark, the Tampa Bay Rays are Major League Baseball’s perennial bottom-dweller.
The team has finished last in average attendance the past six seasons at Tropicana Field. As of the All-Star Game, the season’s traditional midpoint, the Rays were averaging a lackluster 14,700 fans.
So it would seem to make sense that team owners — who are hoping a move to an Ybor City ballpark will draw more fans — are hedging their bets.
The new design the Rays unveiled two weeks ago will have room for 30,842 spectators, making it the smallest venue in the majors. Its intimate features continue a trend toward smaller ballparks that began with Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992.
And the trend could be accelerating. Baseball is trying desperately to figure out how to compete with high-definition TV and appeal to a millennial generation not content to stay in one seat for nine innings.
In the past eight years, the Braves, Marlins and Twins all moved into smaller ballparks. Even a marquee team like the Yankees opted to reduce the number of seats when the new Yankee Stadium was built in 2009.
"The trend is to get smaller but also provide a higher level of service to fans who do come," said Norman Friedman, associate principal with Populous, the architectural firm that designed the proposed Ybor ballpark. "I think this size is great for the community. You are competing against nice weather and other things to do. The Rays don’t need a 42,000-seat ballpark."
The plan for the $892 million ballpark includes 28,216 seats, with room for another 2,600 people either standing or sitting in grassy and sandy areas. That is almost 12,000 fewer than the Trop can accommodate when the upper deck is fully open, as it has been for playoff games. In all other games, with many upper deck seats blocked off, the Trop holds 31,042 fans.
A smaller park means less spending on maintenance but not necessarily less revenue, said Mark Conrad, a professor and director of the Sports Business Concentration at Fordham University.
"The days of getting 50,000 or more people with the exceptions of major games are pretty much very limited," Conrad said. "You don’t really need that many seats to be profitable if you utilize the seating you have based on different pricing structures, views and standing areas."
The Rays said they decided on a smaller stadium based on marketing studies and not restrictions caused by a tight, 14-acre site. Officials said they could have squeezed more seats into the design.
The upper tier in the ballpark runs only between the length of the two dugouts and would be the smallest in the majors. And some traditional seating will be sacrificed to more innovative areas intended for fans who will spend as much time on smart phones or chatting with friends as looking at the game.
"There are some groups who prefer to socialize and they don’t need to be glued to the game the entire time, so we try to create spaces for them and that might be standing room-only platforms or social places that may not have the best view of the field but a great view of downtown or a rooftop view," Friedman said. "Millenials and Gen Xers are looking for a place where the ballpark might be the background to the social experience."
To cater to them, the 900,000-square-foot ballpark includes 17 different seating areas, among them a fountain, a picnic area and sand berm as well as 21 viewing platforms and gathering spaces. One area will have crescent-shaped tables with four seats for fans who want to socialize. Another, picnic benchesto create a backyard barbecue feel. Parents can sit close to a sandy area where their children can play.
Other ballparks already have non-traditional seating such as the pool at Chase Field in Arizona, which is at field level at right-centerfield and includes a hot tub. Friedman expects more stadiums will follow suit.
"I think there will be a lot of ideas at the Rays ballpark that will be benchmarks and folks may try to emulate them," he said.
For those who are watching the game, the ballpark is designed to get them as close to the action as possible.
The area that separates the seating bowl from the field will be just 46 feet from home plate, a "nose-to-field distance" that is smaller than any stadium built since Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, Friedman said.
And even the worst seats, the back row of the upper tier, are closer to the field than at any other MLB ballpark, in part because of a cantilever design used for the loge and upper deck.
"You want the fans as close to the action as you can," Friedman said. "Baseball and every sport is competing against flat-screen TVs in your home. The in-game experience has to be worthwhile for people to come out."
Technology is also changing the way fans watch games. Some already turn not to JumboTrons but to smart phones for replays or to look up hitting stats. At big sporting events like the NCAA football championship, "fan experience" smart-phone apps can recognize when a fan enters the stadium and can direct them to the concession stand with the shortest line.
The Rays release of their stadium design comes during a season when crowds across the majors have slumped by almost 6 percent. Overall attendance is on pace for its lowest level in 15 years.
Explanations for the decline abound. Some point to poor weather and canceled games. Others are worried about fewer hits, increasing numbers of strikeouts and negative publicity about teams that have sold off star players, such as the Marlins.
Baseball and other professional sports also face increasing competition for fans’ wallets and attention, said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. While attendance is declining, the league is still seeing record gross revenues, he said.
"There are more ways to consume content today than ever before, like digital, streaming, satellite and radio," he said. "And we live in a society where it’s harder and harder for people to invest four hours of their day on a regular basis going to the ballpark."
MLB’s attendance slump could mean the Rays will not be the worst-supported team for the first time since 2011.
That dubious honor may fall to the Marlins, who play in a new ballpark that opened in the Little Havana neighborhood in 2012. At the order of new owner Derek Jeter, the team announced it would no longer pad attendance figures and now only reports actual tickets sold. Its average crowd has plummeted from about 20,400 in 2017 to about 9,500.
The Rays have not released any market studies showing how they arrived at their roughly 30,000 capacity for the new stadium. But officials said that about 1.6 million people live within a 30-minute drive of the Ybor site, which is closer to the population center of the Tampa Bay region than the Trop.
They expect bigger crowds than at the Trop but stressed that it was important to "right-size" the ballpark for this community.
"We’re not looking to build the biggest, most expensive, shiniest thing," said Melanie Lenz, chief development officer for the Rays. "What we want to do is create the best experience for our fans."
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.