ST. PETERSBURG — The sad tale of Tropicana Field attendance refuses to go away, mainly because fans refuse to show up.
It might go unnoticed in the spring or in a season that’s bound for nowhere, but it’s hard to ignore four consecutive crowds of fewer than 8,000 against the Red Sox while the Rays are surging toward a 100-win season and the calendar is turning to September.
That, my friends, might be construed as a game-changer, one that will not be shrugged off so easily in Major League Baseball’s executive suites in the coming discussions about Tampa Bay’s future.
Whether you blame the stadium, the location, the lack of corporate support or the demographics of the market, is not today’s theme. Whether you believe the solution is an Ybor City stadium, a split season with Montreal or utter surrender, is also not up for discussion today.
Instead, I have proposition. Or maybe it’s a plea.
Following the weekend series against the Twins, the Rays have one homestand remaining in the regular season. It includes four games against Detroit, three against Toronto and three against Miami. Which, around here, is equivalent to boring, boring-er, boring-est.
And that’s a shame. Because despite what an ESPN television host recently suggested, the Rays are among the most interesting teams in baseball no matter who they are playing. The offense is inexplicably clutch and power-heavy. The pitching staff has a conga line of fascinating relievers. And the defense, while perhaps not as good as past seasons, still boasts some of the best outfield work you will ever see.
So here’s what I suggest:
For the final 10 games of the regular season, the Rays should slash ticket prices at Tropicana Field. Deep, serious, park-wide cuts.
This is not going to immediately change anyone’s opinion about the level of support in Tampa Bay. That ship has already sailed, and it was mostly empty.
No, think of this instead as a gesture. A gesture to a dugout filled with players who deserve to have a loud, enthusiastic crowd cheering them on in the final weeks of a glorious season. A gesture to the many fans who have boosted television ratings by following the Rays nightly, but do not have the financial means to attend many games.
Maybe even a gesture to the Rays marketing department, which does not have the easiest job in the world but has still not hit on a successful strategy after decades of practice. The Lightning do not like to acknowledge this, but they grew their fan base by flooding the community with free tickets for a number of years until Amalie Arena gradually turned into a destination spot for families and millennials looking for a fun night out.
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In the Rays’ case, 10 games in September will not move the needle. It will not convince anyone that Tampa Bay’s love affair with its baseball team is suddenly passionate 25 years into a marriage. And it will not help St. Petersburg’s case for building a stadium on the Trop land.
But here’s what it might do:
It might convince a few more fans to pay full price for postseason tickets in October. It might help the Rays make a few extra dollars off parking and concessions. It might steer the conversation away from the empty seats and onto the field where it belongs.
The Rays already have tinkered with this idea by reducing the price on cheaper seats during the Boston series, but they did it without notice or fanfare. That’s probably because they didn’t want to annoy season ticket holders or the handful of others who had already paid full price.
And, yes, that’s still a concern. So maybe the Rays will need to appease their season ticket holders by offering them free tickets to those games, as well. I mean, it’s not as if the inventory is tight.
More than anything else, the Rays need to create a buzz. In a normal market, you would think a first-place team with the game’s top prospect would be enough. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Tampa Bay is not your typical MLB market.
From Aug. 1 to Sept. 2, with the pennant race heating up, the Rays averaged 9,846 fans per game at Tropicana Field. Every other first-place team in the league averaged between 25,877 and 47,614 fans during that span.
Heck, five of the six last-place teams averaged more fans than the Rays even as their teams were losing night after night.
Selling cheap tickets for a handful of games will not change either the reality or the perception of Tampa Bay’s attendance woes. But for 10 days in September, those games can at least show us what we’ve been missing around here.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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