Rays' attendance woes continue as Lightning captivates Tampa Bay

Seats in section 144 of Tropicana Field (right field) were mostly empty as the Tampa Bay Rays played the Minnesota Twins on April 14, 2011. Baseball attendance has continued to lag, and now the Lightning's playoff run is further eating into the Rays' fan base.   [EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN, Times]
Seats in section 144 of Tropicana Field (right field) were mostly empty as the Tampa Bay Rays played the Minnesota Twins on April 14, 2011. Baseball attendance has continued to lag, and now the Lightning's playoff run is further eating into the Rays' fan base. [EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN, Times]
Published May 26, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Tropicana Field's dome protects the Rays from all manner of foul weather, but this year nothing can shield the local baseball club from the Lightning.

Tampa Bay's hard-charging hockey team is deep into a playoff run, and the region's sports fans, fair-weather to die-hard, are caught in the storm.

That's troublesome for the Rays' attendance, which is perennially low even without head-to-head competition in their home territory.

So far the Rays and Lightning have overlapped home games five times during the National Hockey League playoffs. The Lightning have sold out Amalie Arena, which seats 19,204, every time.

The Rays brought more than 20,000 fans to the Trop only once during those five playoff games. They drew a meager 8,701 to a weeknight game May 7 featuring ace pitcher Chris Archer against the Texas Rangers, the same night the Lightning was facing the Montreal Canadiens.

Archer's next start came the night the Lightning won Game 6 against the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Attendance at the Trop was the lowest ever for a Rays game against the New York Yankees, at 10,417.

"Everybody's either going to the hockey game or they're going to the watch party," said Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, across the street from the Trop. "They're not thinking baseball right now."

Ferguson said the watch parties at his Tampa location — Ferg's Live across from Amalie Arena — have all been packed with hockey fans.

It's difficult to quantify exactly what impact the Lightning's success has on attendance at the Trop, where the Rays recently surged to the top of their division. And there's little the Rays can do about it now, as the Lightning's season hinges unpredictably on each successive victory.

"It's pretty clear that their success has hampered the attendance of the Rays," said Michael Mondello, professor of sports marketing in the University of South Florida Muma College of Business. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."

The impact is hard to measure, he said, but the Lightning's run is certainly driving fans to Tampa and keeping viewers at home in front of their TVs. Other factors in the Rays' attendance woes include uncertainty around the future of the team's stadium and the plethora of other summer activities to choose from, he said.

"Whenever you have a hot team, everybody's going to follow the hot team," said William Sutton, who also teaches in the Muma College of Business and directs the USF Sport and Entertainment Management program. "That would have an adverse effect on anybody."

Lightning fans and locals want to keep up with the watercooler conversation, he said. The decision is not fully financial.

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"It's more a question of how they're going to spend their time than their money," Sutton said. And it's not until after Memorial Day that baseball attendance really picks up, he said.

While the Rays' attendance troubles have been noticeable in this season of injuries, the problem is years old, he said.

"It's just difficult to get people to go to St. Pete to watch the Rays, and that's not going to change," Sutton said.

The hockey team has already won two series and could take a third with a victory at home tonight, which would put them in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2004.

"We are wishing the Lightning much success in their playoff run," Rays president Brian Auld said in a statement. He noted that the Rays are "playing great baseball right now and appreciate the fans that have already attended a game this year."

Fans at Ferg's in St. Petersburg before Monday's home Rays game were less convinced the Lightning's success translates to empty seats in the Trop.

"It's a separate fan base," said Mac Leboeuf of Clearwater. "Hockey is so much more fast-paced."

Doug Rothauser of Bradenton said Rays fans who stay home from games are likely still tuning in to the baseball game on TV.

"The Lightning are in the playoffs, so it's a big deal," he said. "When the Rays are in the playoffs, they sell tickets. It's about getting people here during the year."

Jennifer Tate, who lives in Tampa, said she doesn't know of anyone who has chosen to watch the Lightning over the Rays. Low attendance bothers her, she said.

"I'm disappointed," she said. "They're doing great this year, and you look around and see so many empty seats."

As of Monday, the Rays were last in baseball with an average home attendance of 15,215. The Trop is considered sold out at more than twice that number.

The Rays have played in St. Petersburg on the same night as a Lightning playoff game nine times in the past two months, including the five home contests. On April 18, early into the Lightning's run, the Rays drew 20,824 to a Saturday game against the Yankees. That night, the organization gave out Alex Cobb Gumby figurines.

In the other eight home matchups, the Rays drew below-average attendance five times. The three games when they exceeded the average each featured a promotional giveaway, including bobbleheads and a postgame concert

The baseball season is long, with 81 home games continuing into October. The Stanley Cup Playoffs will end within weeks.

But the Rays' attendance woes are not minor, and the competition with the Lightning fits into the larger debate about whether St. Petersburg can support a professional baseball team.

The team wants to look elsewhere in Tampa Bay for a new stadium site, and talks with the city have hit an impasse. The City Council plans to discuss the situation this week, though the mayor and the Rays owner have said they probably will not negotiate during baseball season.

Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.