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The Rays as a TV-only production? Hmm, haven’t we heard that plan before?

John Romano | The pandemic-forced concept of seeing baseball only on TV in August and September sounds a little like the sister city plan the Rays proposed with Montreal.
Ah, yes. But will fans still love the Rays if they can't go to Tropicana Field during the pandemic? History suggests that won't be a problem in Tampa Bay, where fans have been pretty good, comparatively speaking, when it comes to television ratings.
Ah, yes. But will fans still love the Rays if they can't go to Tropicana Field during the pandemic? History suggests that won't be a problem in Tampa Bay, where fans have been pretty good, comparatively speaking, when it comes to television ratings. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published Jul. 3, 2020
Updated Jul. 3, 2020

Chances are, you will never get into Tropicana Field to watch the Rays play during the hottest months of this summer.

Instead your devotion will be limited to following the team from afar. Watching on TV, listening to the radio, reading in the newspaper and online. You might as well be cheering for a team that was playing its home games 1,508 miles away.

Like, say, in Montreal.

Of all the consequences of the coronavirus on sports, this might be the most serendipitous in Tampa Bay. The proposed sister city plan with Montreal will get an unintended quasi-test run due to the pandemic.

Obviously, it won’t be exactly as the Rays originally proposed. The team hasn’t moved its spring headquarters to St. Petersburg, and you didn’t get regular-season games in Tampa Bay in April, May or June. But the most intriguing concept of the plan will unwittingly play out before us this summer:

Can you love a team that is physically out of reach?

The Rays contend that most bay area fans have already made a habit of following the team this way. A voluntary social distancing plan, if you will.

Tampa Bay was 29th in the majors in attendance last season, but was 16th among major-league markets in television viewers. That goes for the team’s ratings (3.03) and the average number of households viewing (57,000) each game.

The numbers would suggest, and the Rays research backs it up, that folks in Tampa Bay prefer to watch games on TV more than almost any other market. That doesn’t mean the Rays have more TV viewers than other markets — their numbers are dwarfed by mega markets such as New York, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. What it means is the Rays get a smaller percentage of their identifiable fans to attend games in person.

For instance, the Rays had nearly double the number of TV viewers than the Rangers last year (57,000 to 31,000), but almost half as many fans in the stadium (14,000 to 26,000). There was a similar trend with the Padres, White Sox, Diamondbacks and Reds.

So, to borrow a political term, the Rays seem to have a silent majority of fans when it comes to buying tickets.

Considering the unique nature of this pandemic-shortened season, and the recent spike in positive tests around Florida, the Rays are expecting their TV numbers to look even better by October. Particularly with a team that’s expected to be among the best in the American League.

“I think the ratings will go up pretty significantly,” team president Matt Silverman said. “You have a lot of people who are excited for baseball, and I think the intrigue of a 60-game season makes it pretty interesting. We’re also playing all East Coast opponents, so all the games will be good time-zone games. I think it’s going to create daily, must-see viewing.”

Whether it really mimics the sister city plan for most viewers is going to be harder to judge. Even though it appears 80 percent of Rays fans enjoy watching the game on TV rather than visiting the Trop, there is still an emotional barrier to be cleared.

Team studies indicate the typical Rays fan attends one or two games a year, and that would obviously still be possible if the team played half its home games in Tampa Bay before leaving for Montreal in the summer. But, for the past two decades, fans have been able to make that choice on their own.

If the team packs its bags and moves sometime in June, the choice of attending a game in August or September is no longer an option without a plane ticket. So forced circumstances, rather than a personal decision, determines whether you go to the ballpark or watch from home.

Which means the ultimate question is this: If fans have only half a team, do they lose all their interest?

The answer to that question will come down the road but, at least for 2020, Rays fans will have a sneak preview of what life might be like when television replaces a seat in the bleachers for months at a time.