May 26, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Fans touch rays in the rays tank before the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
On Wednesday night, I was at Trivia Night at Fiddler’s Green, an Irish tavern in Winter Park, Florida, a small town just north of Orlando. As I was heading to the car afterwards I tried to check the Tampa Bay Rays score but was having trouble with the signal. I said to my wife, “Can you check the score of the Rays game,” but before she could take out her phone a man across the parking lot called out, “it’s tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th. Wil Myers hit a home run.”
Perhaps that’s normal in other parts of the country, but that was the first time since I moved to Florida that something like this has happened to me. For many years the Rays weren’t popular in Central Florida, where I reside. The team didn’t win, and the previous ownership seemed to go out of their way to alienate fans. That changed when Stu Sternberg bought the team, installed Andrew Friedman as head of baseball operations, and hired Joe Maddon as manager. The organization created and implemented a rational plan to build a winning team, and they have been largely successful because of it. The Rays won the AL pennant in 2008 and have won over 90 games four years in a row. Every year they’ve made improvements to Tropicana Field to improve the fan experience. The Rays’ success is even more remarkable since they are a small market team without the financial resources of the Yankees or the Red Sox.
Baseball fans have noticed all of this. Despite their disappointing start this year, Rays attendance has increased by over 400 per game according to Baseballreference.com. They are no longer last in home attendance in the AL like they have been many times in the past. More interestingly, they have become a road draw. Their road average of 25,575 (according to ESPN) puts them ahead of the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago White Sox. At just about every ballpark around the league, you can find some fans wearing Rays gear for the game. That was not the case a few years ago.
It’s possible that if the Rays continue to disappoint they’ll fall back to the bottom in AL attendance. It’s tough enough for them to get fans to come to the Trop when they’re winning. Still, the anecdotal evidence and the numbers have shown the Tampa Bay Rays audience is slowly growing, despite a disappointing start to the year.