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Young fans help Rays grow their base, team owner says

TAMPA — Echoing an upbeat tone he set on opening day, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg told Tampa business leaders the team is growing its fan base — from the bottom up.

Since opening day, the team has offered discount packages to about 25,000 school children and Little Leaguers, which has helped boost early season attendance.

Developing fans "doesn't happen overnight'' and the team is "preaching patience,'' Sternberg told about 270 people at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's annual Rays appreciation luncheon at the Downtown Hilton.

"Today's 5-year-olds, 8-year-olds and 12-year olds who were here in 2008 are growing into Rays fans,'' he said, "Having a team here is a reason for them to stay in the area.''

Sternberg made only a passing reference to the Rays' desire for a new stadium, an issue that has created tension in the past between the team and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

"We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what can be done here,'' Sternberg said. "Clearly it begins with a new home. It will glow and emanate throughout the state ... a beacon. We will get there because of people and business leaders in this room who treasure the Rays and what they mean to the Tampa Bay area.''

Earlier this month, both Sternberg and Foster said they have opened dialogue about the Rays' hopes to examine new stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, though neither man would go into specifics. Foster has so far refused to allow the team to look at sites outside of St. Petersburg or on adjacent Pinellas County land.

On Tuesday, Sternberg said he has not met with Foster since opening day.

Through Monday, the Rays ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in attendance, with 21,904 people per game.

That compares to last season's 19,255 average, which was the lowest in Major League Baseball, but it is too early to draw conclusions, said Rays President Matt Silverman. Too much depends on which opponents come to town, who is pitching and whether games fall on weekends or weekdays.

The Rays expect 2013 attendance to remain "more or less flat'' compared to 2012, Silverman said, and April's numbers support that prediction.

Team officials will address a joint meeting of Pinellas chambers of commerce on May 9.