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The pennant race is here, but Rays are still waiting on the fans

John Romano | Despite having one of the best records in baseball, the Rays are drawing some of MLB’s smallest crowds.
The upper deck has been closed all season at Tropicana Field, and the seats in the lower bowl have typically not been difficult to find.
The upper deck has been closed all season at Tropicana Field, and the seats in the lower bowl have typically not been difficult to find. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 13

ST. PETERSBURG — Here’s a prediction for the Rays homestand that begins on Monday against Baltimore:

When it comes time to explain the tiny crowds at Tropicana Field, there will be more excuses than actual fans.

School is back in session. It’s COVID, stupid! There’s a storm in the Gulf. C’mon man, who wants to see the Orioles? I still miss Longo. It’s more fun watching on TV and listening to B.A. and Dewayne. The beer prices are such a rip-off. Tropicana Field is sooooo far away.

Folks, this ain’t criticism. It’s a clarion call.

Everyone seems to know attendance is a problem at Rays games, but I’m not sure enough people comprehend the magnitude. It’s gone on for years, and shows no sign of improving. In fact, it’s as bad as ever.

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I reached out to some people this week to ask them to reflect on 24 seasons of attendance issues in Tampa Bay, and offer me one word to sum up their feelings. No explanations, no qualifications, just one word to describe their gut reaction.

The mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa both seemed to reference the team’s future beyond the end of Tropicana Field’s lease after 2027.

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman: “Uncertainty.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor: “TAMPA!!!”

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This is not your fault. And by you, I mean the typical Rays fan.

Maybe the Trop really is too far away on a work night. And maybe the prices are too darned high for you right now.

Individually, every explanation is entirely reasonable. Collectively, however, it paints a daunting picture.

If it’s not a reflection of fan passion, then it’s an indictment of the bay area’s demographics. Not enough corporations, too many fixed incomes. Not enough density, too many tickets to sell.

Major League Baseball is a different beast than other pro sports leagues. It isn’t just Sunday afternoon games. It isn’t just a couple of home games per week. It’s 81 games a season, and homestands that go on for days. In other words, it takes a big-boy market to be able to handle baseball’s enormous revenues.

Recent attendance history suggests Tampa Bay is near the bottom of the barrel in MLB markets. And maybe that’s okay. Not every market can perform at the same high level.

The worry with Tampa Bay, however, is that the bar never moves. The Rays are at the bottom in both good times and bad. Since 2008, the Rays have the fifth-best record in baseball. And yet they are 30th in attendance over that span.

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The one-word responses I got back from the business community were more harsh than the politicians. St. Pete mayoral candidates, for instance, offered words of hope for the team. Business leaders, most of whom declined to go on the record, had more sober reactions.

Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Sports Bar: “Frustrated.”

Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times: “Cringy.”

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Consider the last three games at Tropicana Field:

The Rays had just retaken the East Division lead and had a three-game series against Seattle on the first three days of August. They drew crowds of 5,855, 10,071 and 9,701.

On those same three days, Milwaukee was hosting the last-place Pirates. Like the Rays, the Brewers were in first place. Except, they drew crowds of 23,563, 24,902 and 28,003.

Tampa Bay is the No. 13 market in the country, based on Nielsen’s media rankings, and Milwaukee is No. 37. And yet on the same days, in the same circumstances, the Brewers drew nearly three times as many fans.

You can argue that Tampa Bay is a better market than others when it comes to TV revenues. That is true, but to a much smaller degree. Fangraphs.com annually estimates local TV contracts and lumps Tampa Bay near the top of the bottom-third of the league. Not awful, but probably not enough to make up for lost revenue at the gate.

In 2019, baseball’s last full season before the pandemic, the league’s median attendance figure was about 2.2 million fans. The Rays drew 1.1 million. And that was while winning 96 games.

Using $30 as an average ticket price, and adding $5 per person for parking and concessions, the Rays potentially lost about $38.5 million by not reaching the median attendance figure in a season when they reached the playoffs.

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Even before there was a game, there was a problem. When tickets went on sale for the first season in franchise history, Tampa Bay sold out the home opener but that was it. The Rays would go another six years before the next sellout at the Trop. For people who have been around here for a while, there were plenty of warning signs.

Rick Vaughn, former Rays vice president of communications: “Unsurprised.”

David Feaster, original chairman of Rays Clutch Hitters Club: “Frustrating/conundrum.”

• • •

The Rays are in another pennant race, and there’s at least a decent chance that their crowd for the series opener on Monday will be the smallest in MLB that day.

Yes, it’s the Orioles. Yes, COVID is a problem in Florida. Yes, there is always an explanation.

But, at some point, the excuses become the reality.

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

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