ST. PETERSBURG — You do not have season tickets, but you do have opinions.
Passionate, snide, well-articulated and, in some cases, Dali-esque style opinions about why the Tampa Bay Rays have such chronic, and chronicled, attendance problems.
It’s almost as if you really care about the local baseball team.
I mention this only because I’ve spent a few hours going through hundreds of emails and online comments in reaction to a recent Tampa Bay Times package that tried to put the Rays’ plight into perspective by identifying both the legitimate and lousy excuses often given for weak crowd numbers.
Now, before getting to some of your opinions, I need to better explain why this is so important. It’s not about pointing fingers or shaming the Rays or their fans. It’s about finding solutions.
“I love baseball. But love alone is not going to save baseball in Florida.’’ Times reader email.
We can’t simply point at equally small crowds in Baltimore or Kansas City or Cincinnati and shrug our shoulders. Just a few years ago, those markets were all drawing around 2.5 million fans a year. In other words, most teams see their numbers go up or down depending on their place in the standings.
The Rays are stuck in a habitual down cycle no matter how many games the team wins. And with the lease at Tropicana Field nearing its end in 2027, that makes Tampa Bay vulnerable to losing baseball.
I’m not saying the Rays are likely to leave — that will depend on a lot of factors including viable alternatives, territorial rights and TV fees — but that they are more likely to flee than any other team.
“Why the fans here don’t go to the games is a head scratcher for sure and I’m not sure it would be any different if the team played in Tampa. Certainly didn’t make a difference in Miami, did it?’’ Times reader email.
So now that we’ve established why this issue isn’t going away, we can look at the various reasons readers cited for crowds that are typically about half the median size for Major League Baseball.
Explanations ran from detailed to kooky but often hit on these four themes: stadium location, player turnover, ticket prices and team policies. None of those concepts are particularly surprising, but there were some interesting points made along the way.
By now, most people agree downtown St. Petersburg is not the ideal location. It may end up being a default location because of the availability of land and funding mechanisms for a new stadium, but it’s too far from the area’s corporate base and wealthy suburbs in Hillsborough and north Pinellas.
“I was excited when the Ybor Site was selected. The population growth in Eastern Hillsborough along with Pasco and even Polk Counties has been staggering in the 21 years I've lived in (the) area. My guess is (the) St. Pete area is about (the) same in population as when team started in '98.’’ Times reader email.
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That email is entirely accurate. The population in Hillsborough was around 940,000 when the Rays started playing in 1998. Now it’s more than 1.43 million. Similarly, Pasco County’s population has grown by nearly 60 percent and the I-4 corridor around Polk County was recently cited as one of the nation’s fastest growing areas.
During that same time, the Pinellas population has grown by about 8 percent.
Couple that contrasting growth with a serious lack of mass transportation and an assortment of bridges that must be crossed, and location seems to hurt the Rays more than most teams.
The Rays take a very unsentimental approach when it comes to building a ballclub. They care more about their place in the standings than the names of players on the backs of uniforms.
This logical and dispassionate philosophy has made Tampa Bay the most successful franchise in baseball when it comes to getting the most bang out of a payroll.
But it also means star players are traded away as soon as their salaries exceed their production.
“You can’t keep a single one of your treasured players long-term without spending more money. And every time one of them goes it is like a gut punch … there will never be generational support when the team has no players that fans come to know and love for the long haul.’’ Times reader email.
From a competitive and economic standpoint, the Rays are better off without Evan Longoria’s and David Price’s contracts on the books for 2019. But do the continual departures cost the Rays in the long run?
The cost of attending games is an issue across the nation. But, as pointed out on numerous occasions, it is even more acute in Tampa Bay where the Rays struggle to get corporate support and residents typically have less income than other major markets.
Reader complaints centered mostly on the idea that the Rays would be better off lowering ticket prices and $20 parking charges and getting more people in the building.
The overall revenues might not increase but the atmosphere at Tropicana Field would improve and the fan base would, theoretically, grow for the future.
“The Trop (parking) lot remains on average about 70% empty for most games. Why would I want to pay more to park my car than I pay for the senior ticket in press level? That’s crazy. Rays could charge either $5 or $10, get the cars and revenue into the park, and most importantly show me they really want me (and my car) there.’’ Times reader email.
This area seemed to draw the most emotional responses.
The basic gist was that the Lightning does a much better job of making the in-game experience more enjoyable, and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has endeared himself to fans by moving to Tampa Bay.
“I see (Rays owner Stu Sternberg) interviewed more in Yankee Stadium when the Rays play there than I do at the Trop.’’ Times reader email.
The Rays have been cutting edge in terms of front office strategies and some of their business decisions at Tropicana but fans often seem turned off by the continual bottom-line approach.
“We need an owner who is willing to put the long-term creation of a generational community asset ahead of short-term profits.’’ Times reader email.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.