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Did the Rays just come up with an answer to their attendance problems?

John Romano | The idea of offering cheap standing-room-only tickets could potentially be expanded to the upper deck and begin re-energizing a frugal fan base.
Imagine what Tropicana Field would be like if fans showed up every day the way they did for Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Astros last October. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — The speedy sellout of standing-room-only tickets for Rays games at Tropicana Field is probably a minor story. We’re likely talking about a few hundred customers at prices that wouldn’t cover the bill for the clubhouse buffet.

Chances are, the whole episode means nothing.

But what if it actually means everything?

Not the number of tickets, nor the dollars changing hands. Again, we’re talking about miniscule totals. But what if the concept itself is what’s important? What if it is one of the keys to unlocking Tampa Bay’s untapped potential as a baseball market?

Let’s face it, this community has struggled. You can say it’s the fault of the stadium location. You can say it’s the fault of the market size and demographics. You can say it’s the fault of the owner or the fans.

Whichever reasons you choose, the bottom line is pretty much the same:

Compared to league averages, Tampa Bay has had historically poor attendance for a team on a 12-year run of success.

So if Tampa Bay’s box office performance is unique, maybe the team’s approach needs to be unique, too.

In other words, maybe the Rays need to embrace marketing and ticketing ideas that are completely tailored to this area. I’m not talking about post-game concerts or bar stools in the bleachers or any of the other ideas that you could find in 29 other big league stadiums.

I’m talking about understanding the unique challenges this market poses. The lack of major corporations buying up blocks of tickets. The low median pay scale that forces fans to be stingy with their entertainment budgets.

Because that may be the most important takeaway of the standing-room-only saga. Given a chance to attend as many games as they like for $36 a month even if they have to stand all night, hundreds of fans jumped at the opportunity.

That suggests two things:

Passion for the Rays, and limited financial resources.

So maybe the answer is taking a Costco approach to selling tickets. Sell them in bulk at much lower prices. Re-open the upper deck. Sell those monthly plans for the corner sections at $75 a month with general admission seating. Sell the upper deck seats closer to home plate for $10 a game.

For heaven’s sakes, don’t give fans a reason not to come.

And trust me, I know this is not a long-term strategy. It may not even be a profitable strategy in the short-term. The reason the Rays chose to close the upper deck last year is because it was costing them more money in personnel and upkeep than the actual ticket revenues were bringing in.

Would selling more tickets at lower prices, while also reaping the windfall from additional parking and concessions, offset the costs of operating the upper deck? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the profits or losses would likely be less than the salary of a backup catcher.

But the idea is larger than 2020’s final ledger. The idea is to grow the fan base, to create excitement in the stadium, to reverse the negative narratives that are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This idea would not suddenly catapult the Rays into the middle tier of MLB’s revenues. It may not move the needle at all in 2020. Or 2021. Or even 2022. But eventually, people might get used to going to games. The atmosphere will improve. Maybe it will even increase the appetite to build a new stadium elsewhere in the market.

I should also point out that there are downsides to this plan. If you offer too many cheap seats, you’re not going to sell nearly as many $30 or $40 or $50 tickets. You may also annoy your current season ticket holders who are paying premium prices.

But you know what? Those fans want the Rays to succeed. And the team can surely come up with more perks to appease the people who spend the most money. This can’t be harder than figuring out how to beat the Red Sox with a fraction of the payroll.

Look, I may be completely wrong. This probably violates a dozen different business philosophies.

But here’s the thing:

The Rays have tried a lot of other methods for 22 years and all it’s gotten them is a hankering to spend their summers in Canada. They’ve only got eight seasons remaining on their lease, and one foot out the door.

So what do they have to lose?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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