Should Attendance Be A Concern?

By David Hill

Over the years, a lot has been made of the attendance, or lack thereof, at home games for the Tampa Bay Rays. Aside from their inaugural season where they drew an average of 30,942 people per game, the Rays have not drawn more than 23,500 per game in a season. In fact, the closest they have come to that mark was in 2009, when they drew an average of 23,148 people the year after they made their run to the World Series.

Blame for the lack of support received by the Rays has come mainly on two fronts. First, there is the belief that Tropicana Field is to blame, as it is away from downtown and architecturally sterile. As such, for the Rays to draw fans, they would need a new ballpark. Second, there is the thought that Florida, and Tampa specifically, happen to be incapable of supporting a major league franchise. If a new ballpark doesn’t work, then it must be the region.

Historically, teams moving into a new ballpark see a bump in their attendance, as people are drawn to the new stadium out of curiosity, if nothing else. Attendance then goes into an inevitable decline if the team either does not put a quality product on the field, nor has a marquee player. For example, the Pittsburgh Pirates moved into PNC Park in 2001, drawing an average of 30,834 people that year. Naturally, after a 62-100 season, attendance fell off, as they drew an average of 23,148 in 2002, which falls in line with their attendance figures over the rest of the decade. New stadiums are not necessarily the cure-all for attendance woes.

The Pirates used in the example did not have anyone that could have been considered a marquee player, unless one counts Brian Giles. The Rays, however, do not have this problem, as both Evan Longoria and David Price can be considered of that ilk. Therefore, it would seem that the problem is the region, and the Rays need to move in order to draw enough fans to allow them to improve upon their payroll.

The Tampa Bay Rays first season came in 1998. At that time, the residents of that area already had allegiances built to other ballclubs. Add in the fact that Florida is a haven for migrating retirees, and it would make sense that the Rays would have problems bringing in people that are not fans of other teams. Simply, people that were born when they played their first season would be 14 years old right now. Not many 14 year olds are purchasing season tickets.

If an average of 30,000 fans is seen as a reasonable amount of support for a team, it is interesting to look back at the attendance records of teams that are considered to have strong fan support. The Boston Red Sox did not draw more than 30,000 fans in a season until 1988, despite playing in a ballpark that had a capacity of no less than 33,000 since 1912. This is despite having players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski playing during that time frame. The New York Yankees reached 30,000 fans sooner than the Red Sox, drawing an average of 30,830 fans in 1948. However, they did not get back over 30,000 fans again until 1979. Even the presences of Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle were not sufficient to bring people into the seats.

Promotions and new ballparks can only go so far towards drawing people into a stadium. Fans need to be grown organically, as they grow up around the team. The Tampa Bay Rays have not been in existence long enough to have ingrained themselves into the conscientiousness and the fabric of their community. Given time, this may lead to more support, and a larger fan base.