I had a new article published at Deadspin yesterday, exploring the question of just why the Tampa Bay Rays punch so far below their weight in attendance despite playing in the United States’ 11th largest media market. Possible theories: People hate their stadium, people hate traveling across the bay to St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay region has too much competition for sports spending and too little mass transit, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has alienated fans, Florida overall has too many transplants who are fans of other teams and too many beaches to compete with sports tickets, and all of the above:
“It’s like a secret sauce—there’s a dash of bad ownership, there’s a dash of previous cities’ allegiances because it’s Florida and everyone moves here from somewhere else, there’s a dash of hard to get to,” says [St. Pete urban designer and Rays fan Josh] Frank.
The problem then becomes: How do you solve a problem that is really five problems at once? Building a new stadium in St. Pete is only a solution if what’s keeping fans away is the Tropicana Dome; moving the team to the Tampa side of the bay is only a solution if the problem is that nobody wants to drive to St. Pete; Sternberg selling the team is only a solution if personal antipathy to the way he’s run the team is turning fans off; and so on. And if it’s everything, that’s going to be hard to solve in one fell swoop, or maybe at all.
None of which is the Tampa Bay area’s problem, obviously: It’s Sternberg who has to figure out how to sell tickets (or, you know, not and live off his TV revenues, which should remain decent since Rays fans do watch games, they just don’t go to them). He could move otherwise, yes — in 2027 when his lease is up, anyway — but even then, unless one argues that the presence of an MLB team is worth enough to pave over the bay and build a new stadium in the middle of it, this still is a problem for the guy who bought the team, not for the city that he bought it in.
It is going to make for a very interesting runup to 2027, though, as Sternberg likely continues — possibly rightly — to turn up his nose at spending a lot of money on a new stadium because he doesn’t think it’ll pay off for him, while local governments — definitely rightly — say they don’t wanna pay for one neither, because where the Rays play, even if it’s Montreal, isn’t much skin off the region’s economic nose. The Rays stadium situation might just be a lose-lose scenario, then, where no option, including moving out of town, will vault the franchise into the middle range of MLB attendance, and revenues; that’s not the worst thing — somebody has to be at the bottom, after all — but it does mean that Rob Manfred could have a long wait before the Rays situation is “resolved” and he can start collecting those sweet, sweet expansion fees without fear of closing off potential Sternberg relocation threats.