ST. PETERSBURG — By summer, this endless conversation could turn nasty.
More than a dozen years of fretting, analyzing and debating the lack of attendance at Tampa Bay Rays games may be nearing a breaking point. Three years of stadium talks in Hillsborough went nowhere, and now owner Stu Sternberg will soon decide whether to pursue a new deal in St. Petersburg.
For many fans, it’s beginning to feel personal. As if their loyalty is being questioned.
Meanwhile, Sternberg sees a team that finished April with baseball’s best record and yet had the American League’s worst attendance, and he must wonder if it will ever get better.
One way or another, it’s a problem that must be solved. And that won’t happen until we start looking at the big picture instead of the petty gripes.
So is attendance a problem?
Yes, absolutely. Television, digital and merchandise make up a large share of MLB’s revenues, but ticket sales still account for about 30 percent of a team’s incoming money.
And the Rays ticket sales are not just bad, they are historically bad. Some teams finish near the bottom of the league in rebuilding seasons, but the Rays have finished last while making the playoffs.
There is also the problem of degree. The median attendance in baseball last year was about 27,500 per game. The Rays averaged 14,259. That means Tampa Bay would practically have to double its attendance just to be an average team. And that was while winning 90 games.
So are there legitimate reasons for Tampa Bay’s low numbers?
Yes, of course there are.
In fact, every fan has their own reason for not attending. And every reason, taken individually, is valid.
Maybe you get off work too late to make it to the game, or you have to wake up too early during the week. Maybe the stadium is too far away from your home, and traffic is too much of a hassle. Maybe MLB tickets are more than you can afford, or you just prefer to watch on television.
For any person those are legitimate reasons.
But the marketplace has to be better.
Because, when it comes to the actual problem, that’s what we’re talking about. This isn’t about shaming a family in Brandon that doesn’t want to drive to St. Petersburg. And it’s not about pointing a finger at the business owner in Pinellas Park who can’t fit season tickets or sponsorships in the company budget.
This is about whether Tampa Bay, as a region, has enough money to support three professional sports franchises.
Ultimately, that’s what Sternberg must decide. Right now, his choices are to seek a new stadium in St. Pete, to ask Mayor Rick Kriseman for another shot at Tampa, or to wait until the Tropicana lease runs out in 2027 and look for a deal in some other market.
So will it get done in Tampa Bay?
I think it’s possible, but only if everyone views it logically and fairly. And that means Sternberg and elected officials need to accurately assess how much the team is worth in the marketplace, as well as to the marketplace.
It also means fans need to accept that the team has a valid argument about lack of support. That’s not a slight to any individual, it’s just a fact based on attendance relative to other Major League markets.
With that in mind, here’s a list of legitimate — and not-so-legitimate — arguments that explain why Tampa Bay, as a sports market, has become a punchline for critics and fans around the country.
The road to relocation?
The Rays are one of only four franchises, since World War II, to finish last in MLB in average attendance for at least five consecutive seasons. History was not kind to the three previous markets.
St. Louis Browns (1946-51): Became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.
Washington Senators (1955-59): Became the Minnesota Twins in 1961.
Montreal Expos (1998-2004): Became the Washington Nationals in 2005.
Tampa Bay Rays (2012-17): To be determined.
Sources: ESPN.com, baseball-reference.com
Contact John Romano at [email protected] Follow at @romano_tbtimes.