Anyone who lives in central or southwest Florida has heard the argument a million times. Listen to a few minutes of talk radio, have a discussion around the water cooler, or watch the local news, and you’re bombarded with the same old song. “Well, if only the Rays had some decent attendance to pay for players” or “It’s a shame the community doesn’t support this team” are common refrains from those entering the attendance discussion. After trading James Shields in what some people will see as a money shedding deal (for the record, I think it was a brilliant trade that balanced future assets with present need), this is as good of a time as any to rehash the subject and take a look at the Rays attendance, and consider what can be done to improve the situation.
The Rays began their MLB lifespan as the Devil Rays, and saw fantastic recorded attendance numbers in year 1, with the highest number of attendees in any season on record. People came out (or at least bought tickets) in droves to see McCracken and Cairo lead the Devil Rays lineup to 63 wins. Ever since then, attendance has never crept over 2 million for a season.
So why do the Rays struggle with attendance? Since becoming the “Rays” and not the Devil Rays, attendance has improved, posting 3 of the top 4 and 5 of the top 7 attendance numbers in franchise history while in the new uniforms with the new logo. This seems to imply that on field success has an impact on attendance. But at the end of the day, does it even matter? Even after three playoff appearances and four 90-win seasons in the last five years, the Rays’ attendance remains the lowest in baseball, only fueling the fire of those that criticize the Rays for the lack of attendance! However, it’s not as simple as that.
Look at the NFL team in town. The Buccaneers had a season ticket waiting list for the longest time, but right around the time that the Rays started to become relevant, the Buccaneers started to struggle to sell out games, trading in a season ticket waiting list for special offers and promotions designed to get as many seats sold as possible. The Buccaneers decline might have to do with on field performance, but has a more obvious link to the economic stability of the nation, and the Tampa Bay area. The fact that the Rays improved attendance at a time when the economy was at its worst should be noted as an achievement, but thousands of empty seats at the Trop every night are the focal point of discussion.
A key consideration should be the location of the Trop. Saint Petersburg, Florida is (for those unaware) on the small peninsula-like outcropping that goes into Tampa Bay. While the beaches in the area are fantastic, there is nothing spectacular about downtown St. Pete, and it’s location on a peninsula means that it is less accessible to fans in surrounding areas (Lakeland, Sarasota, etc.). Add in a lack of efficient public transit, and there is certainly nothing to brag about in terms of the Rays location. Also consider that the St. Pete area has fallen in population by 1.4% since 2000, and the average income is lower than the Florida average. Add in a crime rate that is around 100% higher than the national average, and it’s clear that this isn’t an area to which central Floridians flock. So what’s the solution?
Getting a better TV deal is a first step. The Rays get very good viewership, and while TV numbers have fluctuated over the past few years, the fact remains that people will watch the Rays on TV, and that when the Rays get another chance to negotiate a TV deal, they need to blow it out of the water. An improved revenue stream from television alleviates the attendance issue, and proves to the “powers that be” that a new stadium might be a solution to get more attendance, since there is obviously local interest in the team. A new stadium would be fantastic, but as the Marlins proved this season, a new stadium is no guarantee of success financially or athletically. Admittedly, the Marlins and Rays are in completely different situations in terms of management, but our Miami brethren’s struggles should serve as a cautionary tale. The Rays are in a fine position as of now, with the money to lock up players such as Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria and have some on the side to spend. However, if the right situation presents itself to move into a new facility, the Rays will have to be quite tempted to pursue it.
I believe that the business acumen of the Rays leadership will keep the club on track regardless of attendance, television ratings, and other outside forces. Under Andrew Friedman, there has been an influx of talent thanks to excellent scouting and player development, and the skills and abilities that the front office brings to the table will be strong enough to keep the Rays relevant regardless of financial circumstances. However, most Rays fans (myself included) would love to see something finally happen in regards to attendance and location to put an end to the constant discussions and ensure a promising future for baseball in Tampa Bay.