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Five legitimate excuses for the Tampa Bay Rays’ struggling attendance

If you’re trying to explain why the Rays fail to fill Tropicana Field, you can start with these five factors.
A view of Tropicana Field, the current home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The team's lease with the city of St. Petersburg runs through the 2027 season. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
A view of Tropicana Field, the current home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The team's lease with the city of St. Petersburg runs through the 2027 season. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published May 3
Updated May 3

Where big dreams meet small paychecks

This is the one thing the lords of baseball never understood.

When they were looking for new markets in the 1980s and 90s, all they saw when they looked at Tampa Bay was a large population base and a century-long love affair with spring training.

They failed to consider the area’s meager economics.

There were too many retirees, too many service industry jobs and not enough corporations with high-salaried employees. The demographics have improved in recent years, but not nearly enough.

This has been a double whammy for the Rays.

Related: ROMANO: If we're going to complain about Rays attendance, let's get the story straight

The lack of corporations means less sponsorships and season ticket packages than most comparable Major League markets. The proposed Ybor City stadium essentially died because there were not enough financial commitments from corporations to make the deal attractive to the Rays.

All of which means the team is literally selling tickets to fans one at a time. And Tampa Bay residents do not have the discretionary income to sustain that model.

Based on Bureau of Labor statistics, Tampa Bay is 29th among MLB markets in median wages. The only one worse is Miami. Not so coincidentally, they are the bottom two markets in attendance.

A somewhat familiar sight to commuters in Tampa Bay: traffic stands still on the Howard Frankland Bridge after an accident closed lanes. [Times files (2019)]


The $%&#@ traffic

Once asked what he had learned about Tampa Bay that he did not realize before he bought the team, owner Stu Sternberg deadpanned:

“That water is a big divide.’’

Many of the complaints about driving to Tropicana Field are overblown. You live in a metropolitan area, you’re going to have traffic. If you think people don’t struggle to drive or park in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston or Los Angeles, you’re kidding yourself.

But there are two factors that work against Tampa Bay:

A complete lack of mass transit and a population base that is spread out among multiple counties with bridges in between.

Related: RELATED: Five lousy excuses for the Rays' poor attendance
Joshua Morrison, 8, watches as a Rays player signs a baseball before Tampa Bay's season-opener against the Houston Astros March 28, 2019, at Tropicana Field. DIRK SHADD | Times


Generational support

There are stories of Boston fans visiting the graves of parents and grandparents when the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of heartache.

Nothing in Tampa Bay can compare to that devotion.

You don’t just open a stadium’s gates and find loyalty. That can only be earned through shared memories, both glorious and painful. A team survives hard times because a fan base has grown from generation to generation. Tampa Bay is still a long way from there.

Related: RELATED: Baseball's 'most interesting team'
The Rays' plans for a ballpark in Ybor City were unveiled July 10, 2018. On Dec. 11, 2018, the team announced it was walking away from the plan. [Rendering courtesy of Populous Architects]


The wrong city

No matter what the Rays decide this summer when it comes to St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman’s offer to talk about a new stadium, it is clear ownership does not have much faith in the current location.

There is no guarantee that downtown Tampa would be a better site, but 20 years of evidence suggests that St. Pete has its challenges as a home for Major League Baseball.

The lack of multiple corporations in St. Pete, and a location miles away from the wealthiest zip codes in Tampa Bay suggest critics of the current stadium site have a legitimate point.

A 2010 report studying stadium sites concluded that downtown Tampa, the West Shore area and the Gateway area were the only sites that had the adequate population density, business activity and reasonable drive times to support a team.

The inference was that building in downtown St. Pete had been a mistake.

Related: RELATED: The wonder of Wander Franco
The roof glows orange for the Rays' 4-2 win over the Houston Astros on opening day, March 29, 2019, at Tropicana Field. MONICA HERNDON | Times


A destination spot

Many of the inherent flaws in Tampa Bay as a market could be covered up by a stadium that was a destination point.

Tropicana Field is not that stadium.

While there is nothing drastically wrong with the Trop, there is also nothing about this stadium to entice casual baseball fans.

It’s not in an iconic spot on the water, such as San Francisco. It wasn’t created as part of a mixed-use development site with bars and restaurants, such as Atlanta. It has none of the cool vibes that helped revitalize neighborhoods in Baltimore, Denver and San Diego.

It’s an air-conditioned, baseball warehouse.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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