Before arthritis ended her jaunts to Tropicana Field, Spring Hill resident Stephanie Stonerook, 79, attended a half-dozen baseball games a year. Now a 32-inch Vizio flat screen keeps her connected to her beloved Tampa Bay Rays.
"I watch every game,'' she said. "That Wil Myers is something else. He's so enthusiastic and such a student of the game. I love Longoria of course. I hope he comes out of his slump soon. I think my favorite is Ben Zobrist. He and his wife are Christians. I like that she does her music. He's so adorable.''
Stonerook's devotion exemplifies a quiet strength of Tampa Bay's baseball market: For all the debate about persistently poor attendance, TV viewership is remarkably robust.
Tampa Bay-Sarasota is the country's 14th largest television market and fans here tune in at higher rates than average. Ten percent of Tampa Bay TV households watched the Rays in a game against the Boston Red Sox last month — the highest rating of any show that day. If ratings maintain their present pace, Rays viewership for 2013 could finish among the top third in Major League Baseball.
What's less clear is whether the Rays will ever be able to cash in on that popularity.
Sports networks recently have paid enormous sums for local baseball rights. Some fans subscribe to a cable or dish service just to follow their team.
Advertisers love sports because fans watch games in real time and hear all about Bud Light and Toyota. It's not like CSI, where viewers record shows to watch later and click past commercials.
The Texas Rangers recently signed a two-decade deal with Fox averaging $150 million a year — six to eight times what the Rays reportedly now earn from Fox Sun Sports. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the big kahunas of local TV, signed with Time Warner for over $300 million a year.
But at this point, the Rays remain on the outside looking in, said Chris Bevilacqua, a New York media consultant who helped assemble network deals for the Rangers, San Diego Padres, PAC-12 and National Hockey League.
The Rays have several years left on their current TV contract, which was signed in 2008 before "TV revenues exploded," Bevilacqua said.
"Now they have an under-market deal and they have to compete with all these teams that have five times the resources," he said.
Even at renewal time, the team could face a problem.
Mega-deals come from pitting one big sports network against another. Comcast and Fox went head to head in 2010 when the Rangers put their games out for bid. The Dodgers, Padres, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim all parlayed multiple suitors into big paydays.
In Tampa Bay, Fox remains the only sports network with cable and dish channels throughout the region. It's like the Rays have a rare antique to sell, but only one person might be buying.
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The Rays "will see a bump" when they renew their contract, said Maury Brown, co-founder of the Biz of Baseball Internet blog. "But I wouldn't expect them to get some extraordinarily large TV deal.''
Among other things, Brown and other industry observers wonder if huge sports payouts will hit a breaking point long before the Rays renew.
"TV rights have been in an extraordinary growth push,'' Brown said. "I don't know if it can be sustained much longer.''
In some markets, sports programming now accounts for two-thirds of the cost of cable or dish subscriptions. Legislators are threatening to intervene. Some viewers — particularly younger ones — have jettisoned cable or dish altogether. They watch TV shows and movies online and sports at bars.
"I assure you that between now and 2016 or 2018 or whenever the Rays get back into the market, it will not look like what it is today,'' Bevilacqua said. "There will be disruptions as far as the eye can see.''
Some teams — like the Yankees and Red Sox — formed their own regional sports networks, cutting out the middleman by selling directly to cable and dish companies.
The Rays declined comment for this story, but both Brown and Bevilacqua said the team would probably explore creating their own network at renewal time if Fox still dominates the Tampa Bay market and makes a low-ball offer.
But actually cobbling together a 24-hour network, and acquiring channels on multiple cable and dish carriers, would be difficult, Bevilacqua said.
"The Rays would carry all the business market risk, the legislative risk, the consumer behavior risk and the technology risk.
"What if the team passes up a 20-year deal with Fox, only to see cable and dish subscriptions drop by half?" he said. "You have just sucked 50 percent of the economics out of the system.''
TV and stadiums
Tampa Bay fans can take some solace in the boom of media dollars — which now account for about half of major league revenues.
The league recently renegotiated its national TV contracts, which, beginning in 2014, will earn each team an extra $25 million or so a year. That helped the Rays re-sign fan favorite Evan Longoria to a hefty new contract.
The prospect of the team moving from the Tampa Bay area may also diminish as other owners leverage their territory into lucrative, long-term TV deals.
"Television has now become so valuable that you can't move to Portland without impacting Seattle,'' said Brown. "In San Antonio, the Rangers and Astros would fight any stadium deal.''
Even so, Rod Fort, sports economist at the University of Michigan, thinks the pressure for a new stadium will continue. He thinks baseball could engineer a third team in the metropolitan New York market by generating enough new wealth to pay off the Yankees and Mets.
Sure the Rays' income will jump when they sign their next TV deal, Fort said, but the revenue gap between Tampa Bay and other cities could still widen if other owners negotiate better deals. If the Rays remain takers under baseball's revenue sharing system, fellow owners will continue to push for a new stadium.
Despite the recent Miami Marlins' debacle, Fort said, new stadiums typically boost team revenue $10 million to $15 million a year.
What television revenues may do "is beside the point,'' he said. "It is always true that they would rather have a new stadium than an old stadium. It is the essence of what Major League Baseball is all about.''