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Romano: Here's why the Tampa Bay Rays want you to go steady

Tampa Bay Rays third base coach Charlie Montoyo gives a foul ball to a young fan during Saturday’s game between the Rays and the A’s at Tropicana Field. The Rays won 6-0.
Tampa Bay Rays third base coach Charlie Montoyo gives a foul ball to a young fan during Saturday’s game between the Rays and the A’s at Tropicana Field. The Rays won 6-0.
Published May 15, 2016

Let's face it, this was never love at first sight.

In case you hadn't noticed, Tampa Bay has taken its sweet time getting cozy with its first Major League Baseball franchise. When it comes to devotion, the market and its team still haven't gone all the way 18 years into their relationship.

Without a doubt, there are pockets of passion between the Rays and their fans. And there have been many long and enjoyable nights in front of the television. But low attendance has forever been the wedge that has kept these two apart.

And this is why the Rays are changing their approach. It's nothing you might immediately recognize, but it's a philosophical shift that could very well determine whether baseball succeeds or fails in this region.

The man responsible for this new direction is barely five months into the job, and still has most of his personal items stacked in a corner of his Tropicana Field office. His name is Jeff Cogen, and he's a matchmaker of sorts. He's the guy in charge of getting you to fall in love with the team that has been in your own back yard all along.

And he's willing to woo you more than ever before.

"What I've been told by Stu (Sternberg) is: We've done it this way for a decade, and now we want to open our eyes to other ways to do it. Knock yourself out," Cogen said.

For the longest time, the Rays have tried to walk a fine line between enticing fans into the ballpark without turning Tropicana Field into the equivalent of a discount grocer.

Tampa Bay's ticket prices, according to Team Marketing Report, are among the lowest of all the major sports franchises. The Rays have also had free parking promotions and have been more lenient than most when it comes to bringing food into the stadium.

But the Rays were hesitant about offering too many free, or deeply discounted, tickets. The fear was tickets would be devalued, and fans would stop buying full-priced seats. In theory, while trying to bring in more fans, the Rays could potentially lose money.

And this is where Cogen comes in.

He doesn't intend to make Tropicana Field look fuller than ever by offering scads of free tickets — a practice often called papering a stadium — but he does want to seek out potential new customers with a targeted approach to comp tickets.

For instance, the Rays have long had strong television ratings. Knowing those viewers were potential fans who might not be attending games, the team offered contest giveaways during TV broadcasts in April. Fans were encouraged to register at the team's website to win a jersey, or meet a player or some other unique prize.

Once the fans registered, the team's marketing department now had a way to reach out and offer them free seats for a weekday game with the hope that they might be persuaded to buy tickets for a future game. The same concept has been used with different Rays sponsors who have been offered tickets for customers and employees.

"There's a data capture mechanism that is crucial to that — using your word — 'papering.' Because, otherwise, you're just papering," Cogen said. "You do it for the future annuity. Commitment. Fan creation. Growing the base. You do it for all of those reasons. You don't do it for the extra parking that night, or the $1.50 (profit) on the T-shirt and the $1.75 on the hot dog. You do it to grow the base."

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The idea is not radical. The Tampa Bay Lightning has used a similar strategy for years to great benefit. Using comp tickets to fill empty seats creates a more vibrant atmosphere in an arena, and helps forge a greater bond between a community and a team.

But it's easier done in a 15,000-seat hockey arena 41 nights a year, as opposed to a 30,000-seat baseball stadium 81 nights a year.

So along with the handful of giveaways, Cogen has introduced different weekday promotions to entice fans to buy a ticket while getting a $2 kids ticket (Tuesday) or a $2 hot dog (Wednesday) or a senior discount (Thursday).

Cogen, who has worked for several NHL teams, the Texas Rangers and the Ringling Brothers Circus, recognizes that his office might as well have a row of tombstones for previous marketing gurus who have failed to connect with Tampa Bay fans.

Six weeks into his first season in Tampa Bay, the Rays are still near the bottom of the majors in attendance. That reality may have caught Cogen off guard, but it hasn't diminished his bravado.

"Look, let's don't hide behind this. The Rays are attendance-challenged," he said. "Now in full disclosure, it's been a little more difficult than I originally anticipated.

"I believe Tampa Bay is a Major League market and we can be successful here. I do believe that. I firmly believe that. As a matter of fact, I plan on proving that."