With every new postseason T-shirt that rolled off the presses, Jamie Mottram could sense an energy building around the Tampa Bay Rays.
There was the shirt featuring Randy Arozarena flipping his bat after a homer. The shirt featuring Manuel Margot diving over a fence to make a catch. The shirt showing Mike Brosseau rounding the bases, pumping his fist. The shirt calling Kevin Cash a “stable genius" for his mastery of the Rays' playoff roster.
“There is a national sentiment for the Rays — especially against the Astros, but also against the Yankees and now against the Dodgers — because they are the underdog,” said Mottram, president of viral T-shirt maker BreakingT.
While Los Angeles might have a bigger fan base, Mottram said, Rays supporters on his site are snapping up postseason gear at a much higher rate.
“The Rays haven’t been to the World Series in 12 years. The Dodgers have been there three of the past four,” he said. "So while there may be fewer Rays fans overall, it’s a frothier market.”
As the teams square off 900 miles away in Texas, the Rays, for once, are the talk of the town back home. With fans snapping up merchandise and gathering for socially distanced watch parties, the World Series has rekindled excitement over a team most people haven’t watched in person all year — and whose future in Tampa Bay is still very much an open question.
“I talk about the Rays and a home stadium all the time with anybody who will listen,” said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “This has actually helped me remind people how fun it is to have pro sports in your community. Just look around this region right now. We’re buzzing from our Rowdies and our Rays and our Bucs and our Lightning, right? It’s a reminder that things are fun, that baseball’s supposed to take our minds off things.”
At their office downtown, the Chamber of Commerce handed out free Rays signs and is asking businesses to hang banners and light up in blue and yellow, Steinocher said. They’d even inquired about lighting the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Rays colors, he said.
“We’re just trying everything we can,” Steinocher said. “It actually gives me goosebumps to see pure happiness, especially in a time right now when we’re struggling, looking for something to feel good about as a community, where everybody can be happy about it. And here comes baseball at the perfect time.”
At Tropicana Field, a steady stream of masked fans queued up in a line out the door of the Rays Republic team store. Demand for apparel has been strong there ever since the Rays beat the Yankees in the American League Division Series, said store manager Craig Galbraith.
“They were lined up at 9 a.m. yesterday,” Galbraith said. “We don’t technically open until 11, but if we are ready, I’ll let them in.”
Bill Walsh, the Rays' vice president for strategy and development, said that despite the “tremendous response from the community looking for postseason merchandise,” the store still planned to close at 4 p.m. each day for deep cleaning. But the team was also organizing pop-up stores, including one at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Lykes Gaslight Square Park in Tampa.
In Clearwater, city employees were allowed to wear team apparel to work in exchange for a $5 donation to the United Way Suncoast, said city spokesman Jason Beisel. And at schools across Tampa Bay students were encouraged to trade their normal uniforms for Rays jerseys, T-shirts and face masks.
“I would say 65, 70 percent are participating in some form, whether it’s a Rays shirt or just Rays colors," said Nicole Morgado, director of business and communications at Tampa’s Trinity School for Children.
Despite the Rays' perennial attendance woes, their fans could be eager to mobilize behind this team, said Una Garvey, convention and tourism director at the Tampa Convention Center, which will host outdoor watch parties this weekend.
“I think deep down, Tampa loves all sports,” she said. “How we celebrated the Lightning’s Stanley Cup boat parade is an indication that people want to get out and about and be outside and get back to living. I actually think it’s an advantage for them.”
Local television viewership, always solid for Rays games, has stayed strong during the playoffs. Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees on TBS drew a 9.1 rating in the Tampa Bay market. That was about even with the game’s rating in New York, and higher than the local ratings for the first few games of this year’s Stanley Cup finals.
“Right now, Tampa’s on the map in the sports world, with what’s going on with everything here," said Michael Mondello, associate program director at the University of South Florida’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program. “Having that publicity, it’s hard to put a dollar figure on it, but it’s certainly there.”
What impact it’ll have on the team’s long-term fortunes is harder to divine.
The Rays' lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027 and the team has been seeking support from the community and local governments to build a new stadium for years. Separate proposals in St. Petersburg and Tampa have failed to garner wide-scale support.
While local governments have largely tabled stadium discussions during the coronavirus pandemic, Mondello suspects the debate will resurface after the season, with both sides making new arguments.
The Rays, Mondello said, may feel emboldened to argue they can’t continue competing at a championship level without a new stadium; while opponents might counter: “Well, you just proved you can win the World Series and play where you currently exist."
In a way, Steinocher said, Major League Baseball’s shortened bubble season lent new agency to the team’s proposal to split home games between Tampa Bay and Montreal — an idea that initially sounded far-fetched, but now feels “a little ahead of the curve,” he said.
“COVID’s done something for all of us in every business," Steinocher said. “Every model has to be reexamined. All the Rays did pre-COVID was ask us, ‘Can we reexamine the model?’ And our community was concerned about that. Now, it’s like, if you’re not reexamining your model, you haven’t been paying attention.”
Lined up outside the Trop for a chance to get his hands on some World Series merchandise, Brandon Swineheart of St. Petersburg said he hopes the local excitement will push the team and city to resolve their talks.
“I think it hurts us this year that we can’t have fans in the stands,” said Swineheart, 35. “As awesome as it is, we only had a quarter of the season, and we can’t be here. But there is a lot of excitement.”
Locally and nationally, the team’s fan base still has room to grow, Mondello said.
“Their marketability is really strong,” he said. “I think a lot of baseball fans will be pulling for the Rays and the underdog story. I suspect they’re going to get a lot of temporary fans over the next week and a half to see if they can’t win this thing.”
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.
World Series watch parties
St. Petersburg will hold watch parties for each World Series game on Spa Beach next to the St. Pete Pier. Gates open at 6 p.m., about two hours before the first pitch. Fans must come in groups of up to six people, with masks strongly encouraged, to sit in 8-foot by 8-foot pods. Admission is first come, first served at 615 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg.