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Rays and fans need to reconcile. How ‘bout in the upper deck?

John Romano | For a market that has money problems, it doesn’t make sense to eliminate cheaper seats in the upper deck at Tropicana Field.
This is not a good look for a ballpark. And, honestly, it could look worse if the upper deck is reopened and fans are more spread out. But the Rays need to foster as much loyalty as possible, and cheaper tickets in the 300 level is one way to do it during Tropicana Field's final seasons.
This is not a good look for a ballpark. And, honestly, it could look worse if the upper deck is reopened and fans are more spread out. But the Rays need to foster as much loyalty as possible, and cheaper tickets in the 300 level is one way to do it during Tropicana Field's final seasons. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | TIMES | Times ]
Published Sep. 17|Updated Sep. 17

ST. PETERSBURG — So, this is kinda embarrassing. In most markets, a pennant race means fans flock to the box office to snatch up the best seats in the house.

Around here, a pennant race means the Rays need to drop ticket prices to give the illusion that Tropicana Field is somewhat close to filled.

They’ve now done this two years in a row. In 2021, they offered seats for $10 on the final homestand. This season, they’re offering some seats for as little as $9 with additional discounts elsewhere, including on concessions and parking.

Now, many of you will applaud the Rays for being gracious, while others will blast them for not doing this sooner. Either response is fine with me. Honestly, I’m more interested in the results.

The first night of the reduced prices was on Friday, so I looked up crowds — not involving the Yankees — for the past eight Fridays at Tropicana Field. Here’s what they looked like:

There were 9,928 (ouch), followed by 10,169 (sheesh), followed by 8,930 (egad), followed by 10,542 (eh), followed by 13,917 (better), followed by 14,671 (okay, okay), followed by 12,380 (oops) followed by 10,049 (sigh).

So the 14,127 fans the Rays drew against the Rangers this Friday was, relatively speaking, a strong showing. Almost 3,000 more fans than the usual Friday night against a nondescript team.

Granted, as sample sizes go, that’s pretty miniscule. But it falls in line with what happened last September with the reduced prices. The Rays went from averaging 9,463 fans on the previous homestand to average crowds of 15,847 for the final 10 dates at home.

And what does that tell you?

It says fans want to pay less for their tickets. Brilliant deduction, right? Of course, fans want to pay less. They want to pay less in Atlanta and Toronto and St. Louis, too.

But those cities, for a lot of reasons, do not have trouble selling tickets at regular prices. Toronto drew 36,573 on Friday. Atlanta had 42,578, and St. Louis had 47,118.

Meanwhile, the Rays had a clearance sale and still drew a fraction of what most markets would consider good crowds during a pennant race.

• • •

So, obviously, ticket prices are not the only problem in Tampa Bay.

But that doesn’t mean ticket prices aren’t one of the problems in Tampa Bay.

There are two basic reasons for this. No. 1, the median salary in Tampa Bay is among the lowest in the nation for a major market. In other words, folks don’t have a lot of extra money to spend. No. 2, the Rays have artificially raised prices by closing the upper deck at Tropicana.

Now, the team can’t do anything about the median salary, but the upper deck is another story.

The Rays first closed the upper deck before the 2019 season, essentially because it was no longer cost-effective. With such small crowds, it did not make sense to pay for the building upkeep, as well as personnel costs, for the stadium’s 300 level.

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Another, ancillary, benefit was that the stadium would feel more vibrant with the crowd gathered in closer proximity to the field.

I point this out to say the Rays had legitimate reasons for shutting down the upper deck.

But, four seasons later, it’s time for the team to rethink this.

Between the television ratings and the jump in sales at reduced prices, there is more enthusiasm for the Rays in Tampa Bay than raw attendance figures show.

And it makes no sense for a market that has disposable-income problems to have less bargain-priced seats than other stadiums simply because all the cheap seats in the upper deck have been eliminated.

I know the Rays think this is the wave of the future. You need only look at their previous plans for a “boutique” stadium in Ybor City to recognize they want fewer seats for a more intimate stadium setting. Fewer seats also mean demand is theoretically higher and so are ticket prices.

And maybe that will work in a freshly designed stadium, but it ain’t happening at Tropicana Field.

• • •

So instead of catering to the smaller, exclusive ticket-buying crowd, why not try to expand the fan base during the few remaining seasons of the Trop’s lifespan?

A generation ago, the Lightning endeared themselves to a non-traditional hockey market by offering a limited number of $99 season tickets for the upper deck at Tropicana Field (then called the ThunderDome). It surely didn’t make the Lightning a lot of money (although it boosted parking and concessions), but it attracted fans, fostered loyalty and got people accustomed to going to games.

Twenty-five years later, a $99 season ticket for baseball (with twice as many games) would not fly with MLB, nor with people paying premium prices below.

But what about a $405 season ticket for a general admission seat in the upper deck? That’s a neat $5 per game. If you don’t want the season ticket, the general admission seats could go for $10 daily.

Now, I’m not a marketing guru. I’m sure there are better plans than this. But they need to be simple. (No going to a convenience store to get the coupon for the promotional tie-in on a specific day of the week.) And they need to be bold. And they need to be shouted from the rooftop all offseason.

Are there drawbacks? Sure. Fans who used to spend $25 a pop for outfield seats could, theoretically, spend less money while going to more games. And the Rays could see that as devaluing their product.

But aren’t we beyond that at this point?

• • •

Baseball is a family sport. A daily sport. A summer sport. Going to a game is supposed to be part of a routine, not a question of whether a family can afford it.

Has this market underperformed compared to the team’s success on the field?

Without a doubt.

But, if a new stadium is built, there is a chance for a reset. And instead of making tickets more exclusive in the interim by keeping the upper deck closed, perhaps it makes sense to invite more fans in.

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

• • •

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