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Romano: Rays have fans, they're just not at the ballpark

Eventually, this will again be a topic of conversation around here.

The average attendance at Tropicana Field remains below 15,000, putting the Rays in danger of being Major League Baseball's lowest-drawing team since the 2006 Marlins.

In many ways, it has become part of the franchise's identity. The Rays are known for pitching, a shrewd front office and a lack of fans in the seats.

And, yet, there are some other figures that should be included in this never-ending debate. Last week, the folks at Nielsen released TV ratings for all U.S. markets for the first half of the season, and the numbers in Tampa Bay are intriguing.

The Rays may be chasing the Yankees in the American League East, but they have beaten up on sitcoms, cop shows and reality TV.

Rays games are the No. 2-watched programming in Tampa Bay whenever they air in prime time on Sun Sports. Let that sink in. No. 2.

That means, on average, more people are watching Rays games than whatever NBC, ABC or Fox is showing in Tampa Bay. Only CBS affiliate WTSP has higher average prime-time ratings than Sun Sports, and the gap (4.56 to 4.29) is not terribly large.

The Rays are getting a higher percentage of TV viewers than the Yankees or Dodgers do in New York and Los Angeles. They get more total viewers than the White Sox in Chicago or the Braves in Atlanta.

This means the community that is routinely ridiculed nationally for a lack of fan support is actually getting more enviable TV numbers than bigger or more historic markets.

There are even more eyeballs tuned to Rays games than the first-place Nationals in Washington, D.C., and more than second-place teams in Houston and Minnesota.

So, considering the level of interest in the local team on television, maybe the gist of this Rays conversation could use a subtle tweak.

Perhaps it's not an issue of whether Tampa Bay cares about the Rays, but rather a question of whether Tampa Bay can afford the Rays.

When you combine a community on the low end of the household income scale with a sport that typically needs to sell 2 million tickets a year, you have a challenge.

And this is how you end up with a lot of fans watching, but not so many attending.

So does this mean the Rays could boost ticket sales by making fewer games available on TV and forcing fans to Tropicana Field? The short answer is no. TV can actually drive attendance. You create a buzz and attract new fans by building your audience on TV.

"The Rays broadcast the same amount of games as every other team," said Sun Sports vice president Marc LeSage. "The broadcast becomes a platform for the team to amplify everything they're doing at the ballpark. We work very hard to help the team sell as many tickets as it can. We want the ballpark filled every night."

Teams can also make a bundle of money by selling rights fees to networks. The Rays' deal with Sun Sports is up at the end of next year and the team should see a nice boost in income, although the lack of competing sports networks could limit that windfall.

In the meantime, the Rays will continue to play and fans will continue to watch.

Granted most of them will be watching on TV, but that doesn't mean they don't care.

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