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Tampa Bay has disappointed as a baseball market, but have the Rays disappointed, too?

Cheaper tickets produced bigger crowds this week, which suggests stadium location and other complaints are not the only factors in woeful attendance.
A view of the crowd as seen above the Rays dugout on the first base side as Rays players look out to the field during first inning action at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. The sale of a limited number of tickets at $2 apiece has brought more people to the stadium this week, but raises questions about the Rays' marketing efforts. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Jul. 3
Updated Jul. 4

ST. PETERSBURG — In this summer of diminishing hope for baseball in Tampa Bay, there was a moment during Tuesday night’s Rays game that seems worth mentioning.

After fouling a ball off his right shin, Brandon Lowe had remained in the game long enough to punch a single to leftfield for his third hit of the night. As he took off out of the batter’s box, it was clear Lowe was in significant pain and had to hobble his way to first base.

And that’s when it happened.

As a trainer led him off the field, the crowd at Tropicana Field stood and gave him an appreciative ovation. The moment was brief and simple, and not terribly uncommon.

Except for this:

Boosted by $2 tickets, as well as lower prices in the seats behind the dugouts, there was a crowd of more than 20,000 that lent the situation more earnestness and charm than we’re used to seeing at Tropicana Field. Frankly, it felt like the kind of moment real baseball towns routinely share.

And it made me wonder:

What if Tampa Bay’s marketing had been handled differently?

I’m not suggesting $2 tickets are a long-term solution. And I’m not saying an advertising guru could have magically turned Tampa Bay into a great baseball market. Like it or not, the current situation with Montreal is borne of problems largely of our own doing.

But as innovative as the Rays have been in putting a roster together — and pushing for a shared home in Canada — it has never felt like they’ve ever pursued adventurous ideas for filling seats.

The Rays banked on a winning record as a cure-all (which is customarily how it works), but the love affair between fans and team never really took off after the breakout season in 2008.

Stadium location has been a factor. So is the stadium’s ambiance, or lack thereof. So are demographics and the market’s median wage. So are a half-dozen other legitimate reasons.

But how much has perception played into the equation?

Attendance has been a problem almost from the very beginning, and the natural reaction was to blame fans. We need a new stadium because of the lack of fans. We have a low payroll because of the lack of fans. The market is becoming a national embarrassment because of the lack of fans.

Tampa Bay has failed for 20 years to change the perception, and that’s on us.

But it’s also on the team for not figuring out a better way to attract those fans.

To be clear, I’m not saying the team hasn’t tried. After-game concerts, giveaways at the gate and a handful of cheap tickets tied in with a sponsor’s promotion. But those are fairly common ideas.

Usually, when the Rays pursue modern ideas, it’s when it suits their purposes. A cashless stadium. Closing the upper deck. Gameday surcharges. Dynamic pricing.

I could be completely wrong, but I wonder if the market would have been better served by a fan-first approach instead of a message of economic-necessity?

I wonder how a wide-scale, long-term reduction of ticket prices would have worked? I wonder if the revenues would have been similar with more people in the park buying concessions? I wonder if the atmosphere would have been better served with these bigger crowds, and whether that would have led to more of a buzz around the franchise?

And I wonder if that eventually would have grown the fan base and strengthened the long-term viability?

You know, in the days before free agency and obscene player salaries, markets had a chance to slowly grow. It wasn’t necessary to charge $38 to sit in the outfield on a weekend game against the Rangers, and it wasn’t necessary to draw crowds of 24,000 just to be an average market.

Did you know the first game of the Kansas City Royals in 1969 drew 17,688? That was the FIRST GAME IN FRANCHISE HISTORY. And with box seats selling for $3.50. On the same day, the San Diego Padres drew 23,370 for their inaugural game ($3.50 field-level seats) and the Seattle Pilots drew 14,993.

Obviously, it’s a different world today, but the point is those cities were not under the same pressure to immediately start spitting out dollar bills.

Like I said, I could be completely wrong.

Maybe a business model of lower prices/larger crowds is not sustainable. Clearly, there would have to be a better middle ground between $2 flash sales and $38 outfield tickets.

All I know is Tropicana Field felt like a major-league stadium on Tuesday night.

It’s a shame we haven’t collectively figured out a way to make that seem routine.

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes.


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