Rays could win World Series with worst attendance in league

The Tampa Bay Rays are likely headed for the playoffs — again — and also headed for a dismal total attendance — again, though it’s especially impressive that they’re currently dead last in the league, behind even a team that traded away every recognizable player in a salary dump and one that recently drew a 0.00 TV rating. And Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has responded by threatening to cut player payroll next year, because surely that’s going to get people to buy tickets:

“We budget for certain numbers and we’re extraordinarily conservative when it comes to expectations and budgeting, but it was below our expectations,” Sternberg said. “It’s not helpful. We have to change our sights for next year now. “

This would arguably be Sternberg shooting himself in the foot, since any attendance bump he might have gotten from a long postseason run by the Rays (should they manage that) is now likely to be lost as fans fear that next year will see a new parade of no-names like the team across the state. Though it’s somewhat less arguably a way for Sternberg to give himself an excuse if he was planning on cutting payroll anyway. And even less arguably a way to use lousy attendance as a bludgeon in his campaign for a new stadium — something that Deadspin points out he’s been doing pretty much consistently ever since he bought the team:

  • 2009: After raising the payroll to $60 million, Sternberg says it’s “not sustainable” and couldn’t have been achieved without the gate receipts from a playoff run to Game 7 of the ALCS.
  • 2010: Sternberg says he has to drastically reduce payroll, in part because of bad season-ticket renewal rates and overall poor attendance. “For some reason, people are choosing not to come out as they do in other parts of the country for Major League Baseball.”
  • 2011: Sternberg says he can’t spend competitively because it doesn’t translate to attendance. “I could decide to mortgage the future and trade all the young guys,” he said, “But the truth is that we would only get $9.82 extra at the gate. So what’s the sense?”
  • 2012: Sternberg says MLB is losing patience with the team’s attendance figures. “The M.O. to this point in our sport and any other is that winning cures the ills. We’re in brave new ground: Winning hasn’t cured the ills, so to speak.”
  • Spring 2013: Sternberg says the team’s payroll of $60 million is “well higher than it ought to be…The attendance, everyone knows the number.” He predicted increased fan turnout for this season. It obviously didn’t happen.

Sternberg has long insisted that a new stadium would cure his team’s attendance ills, but it’s also worth wondering if maybe this is just the level of attendance that Tampa Bay can support. Which wouldn’t necessarily mean doom for the franchise — hey, some city has to be last in attendance, and the Rays at least draw decent TV ratings, providing a potential alternate revenue stream — but acknowledging it would mean that Sternberg, and MLB, would have to give up hope of Florida taxpayers bailing them out of figuring out how to keep the league’s lower-revenue teams competitive. Which is why you will never ever see Sternberg acknowledge it.


10 comments on “Rays could win World Series with worst attendance in league

  1. That last paragraph kinda sums it up. Their TV deal comes up for renewal in 2016 (?), and a more lucrative contract would all but nullify the talk about “oh we’re basically scraping by as an organization”… which explains why Selig and Sternberg sound so urgent, to the point of desperation.

    God forbid if they ever stop winning, because the Trop will look like the Big O before the Expos moved.

  2. Let’s see, they’re profitable and they’ve figured out how to be successful on the field under their current circumstances, so maybe “bailing out” isn’t required?

    And if the Rays actually lower their payroll next year, I would hope their average attendance drops to zero. They’ve got $20-something million in brand-new money coming from the new ESPN/Fox/Turner contracts. Their total take from national TV contracts alone will be only slightly less than that $60 million payroll. That’s before local TV, MLBAM, merchandising – and tickets. Talking about a payroll decrease is ridiculous.

  3. What Keith said…

    Weren’t the Rays on the list of teams that has been demonstrably profitable over the past 5 or 6 years? I mean sure, their annual profit is probably smaller than their MLB welfare check, but you are actually supposed to reinvest that money in your team under the terms of the agreement… Heck, even Bob Nutting is starting to do that…

    It’s hard to know what the Rays total take is (as Keith suggests), but I’d be shocked if their gross receipts were less than $130m. Even if non-player costs are equal to the player payroll (unlikely in MLB), he’s still profitable.

    Sternberg does score over the Marlins in that he has a good team and good baseball people running it. Plus, he doesn’t have to employ his own halfwit stepson in an executive capacity like you-know-who does. But unless he’s is spending an awful lot on stationery….

  4. Found an interesting article that did a thorough look at TV money, this year and next:

    http://www.awfulannouncing.com/2013/may/how-mlb-splits-your-tv-dollars.html

    Shows the Rays total TV money jumping from $51M this year to $80M next year. Add in at least $30M for tix (assuming, without reason, an average of $20 for each of those 1.5M in attendance) and they’re already more than $50M ahead of this year’s payroll. A few $million more from MLBAM, merchandise and in-stadium advertising. Yeah, they’re in desperate straits.

  5. So… the MLB Revenue Sharing which is supposed to help struggling teams field a better products is an abysmal failure in that the team is pretty good, but nobody really wants to pay to watch in person.

    Maybe they need a “dance team” to help spice up the sidelines.

  6. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign that revenue sharing is a smashing success: The Rays are able to compete – and turn a profit – despite a fan base that pales in comparison to the Yankees of the world.

  7. Here are the basic laws of physics for the TB area.
    1. To support an MLB team (baseball or football) the region needs BOTH a good economy and good teams. Regarding NHL (hockey) because Jeff Vinik is about 6 sigma to the right on the owner decency curve (as compared to the Glazers who are 6 sigma to the left), the Lightning draw well even when they are not good and the economy is not good, although who knows how it would have played out for them during the 2012 season if they had a 41 home game schedule vs a strike shortened 24 game home schedule.

    2. The entire region has to support the teams. Denigrating St. Pete is a stupid and wasted exercise. Corporate support is and will continue to be thin. The demographics for the TB area are not any where near as favorable as those of Boston, NY, DC, SF, PHL, MN, LA (who do not even have to spend any money on the NFL), Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Houston, etc.

    3. When the owner of the MLB team continually tells us how rotten the Trop is, it is no wonder that attendance shrinks even when the economy is marginally improving year over year (2012 vs 2013). Can you imagine for those of us who had or have real jobs in the competitive world, saying to our customers/prospects – yes I know my current product sucks, but as soon as the taxpayers provide me with better resources, then I know you will want to buy my product.

  8. Well, in this particular situation, the “customers” are the local government entities that he hopes he can sell on the idea of building him a new stadium. He’s already profitable at the current level of fan interest, so this isn’t about them.

  9. How much profit are the Rays making each season? It’s not even debatable if they’re making profits or not; they are.
    I’m assuming one of MLB’s ultimate goals is to use as little revenue sharing as possible. The Rays are cutting into their profits.
    I don’t get why the Rays thinking (and MLB telling them) complaining about the stadium & attendance is going to garner sympathy from fans & taxpayers. What’s with these guilt tactics that are supposed to shame people into spending money which they either don’t have or don’t want to part with? It’s just obnoxious when teams are complaining about fans not showing up. They should be grateful for the fans, things & profits they do have.
    Based on the evidence in Tampa-St Pete and MLB, that new stadium smell won’t last long & in the long run, a new stadium with much higher prices will be a deterrent. But I guess the Rays owners want the opportunity to fail ..er try to prove otherwise. It’s just a bad MLB market. Those winning Rays teams prove it.

  10. I wouldn’t say it’s a “bad MLB market.” It’s one of the weaker MLB markets, yes, but that’s a little bit like being “one of the weaker Hall of Famers” or “one of the poorer billionaires” — it’s a pretty exclusive club, and somebody has to be at the bottom of it.

    Presumably all the griping about the attendance is supposed to convey the message, “If only the Rays were playing in Tampa, they’d be raking in money like the [fill in the blank of another team that jumped from second-rung to top-tier with a new stadium]. So, uh, can somebody do something about that for us?”

    Incidentally, I can’t really think of any teams to fill in that blank with: The top nine teams in MLB attendance are all in the top seven markets, aside from the Cardinals, who have always been an exception wherever they’ve played. (The Giants draw better now than they did at Candlestick, yes, but it helps that San Francisco is San Francisco.) Number 10 is the Rockies, whose “new” stadium is almost 20 years old. Then Washington (still in honeymoon), the Cubs … the Brewers, I guess? Okay, there’s your campaign: “If only the Rays had a new stadium, they could be the Milwaukee Brewers!”

    (cricket, cricket)