Rays’ attendance woes may not be solvable by anyone of woman born

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.


26 comments on “Rays’ attendance woes may not be solvable by anyone of woman born

  1. On the Deadspin piece: kudos for being possibly the first non-Floridian writer to acknowledge the silliness of lumping Orlando together with Tampa. You’re getting high marks for that alone.

    (Really though, Orlando doesn’t care about Tampa like that, and I would assume the opposite is true as well. They’re two different cities that don’t share much beyond the same state and huge transient populations.)

    Anyways, it’s difficult to see how a new ballpark would be the silver bullet that solves the Rays’ attendance woes forever. I guess the hope s that the younger baseball fans in TB will embrace the Rays for good once the team’s place in the region becomes more entrenched, but as implied in one of the tidbits from the piece, right now they’re growing up in an environment where going to a Rays game isn’t a cool or hip thing to do. I’m not sure I see that dynamic changing in the event that a new ballpark does get built.

    • I honestly did not realize how far Orlando was from Tampa until I looked at a map while researching this piece. (Though I’ve been to both cities. I think. It was a long time ago, and I was probably reading comic books in the back seat of the car at the time.) The “Tampa Bay is a yuge market, because think of Orlando!” drumbeat has been so loud that I hadn’t fact-checked it until now.

  2. A couple problems I had with the post on deadspin were:
    -You didn’t explore what people hated about the stadium other than the look from the outside, and;
    -You said St. Petersburg sucked, when you meant the location of the stadium sucks.
    Other than that, you’re spot on.

    • 1) Space limitations.

      2) Poetic subhead license. (I didn’t mean that “Florida sucks,” either, just that it maybe sucks as a sports franchise location, relative to other states.)

    • This is a much better article than the deadspin piece which reads like a hit piece on my city.

      Stu could have had a stadium. All we need is a check for $5-600 million dollars from him. He doesn’t want it.

      What he wants to do is say he tried and then move somewhere else. So screw him.

      • Maybe Sternberg could have had a stadium… but he wants one without paying for it himself.

        You know, like the White Sox and Giants and other teams got for using Tampa as a stalking horse in a relocation play.

        I’m not in favour of what Sternberg is doing, don’t get me wrong. But he’s not doing anything that other owners haven’t done (to Tampa and many other locations). The main disadvantage he seems to have is that there aren’t that many viable other destinations for his team to use as leverage.

        The best one (NY/NJ) he cannot get to without paying vast amounts for the rights to (if then). And the others are not likely going to be much better than his present home.

        Let’s not forget that a new stadium didn’t do much for attendance for the Marlins. Typically, the new stadium attendance bump (if it exists at all) last only a couple of seasons. So I’m not sold a new stadium in T/SP – whether publicly funded or not – will be a significant revenue driver for Sternberg.

        As with the Bills in Buffalo, I’m not sure there’s much money available to be extracted from fans that isn’t already being extracted by the old stadium. If that’s the case, what benefit does the new stadium bring?

        • Fair comment. There were some “other things” they didn’t pay for, but the stadium itself I agree they mostly did. As I recall it was previous owners (?) who were using Tampa as the great evil who was trying to steal the Giants, not the current group.

          Did they buy the land in China Basin as well?

          • The city paid to relocate some kind of transit facility (bus depot? I’m forgetting) that was on the site. Everything else was Magowan.

  3. Serious question from someone who does not live in Florida (many don’t, as it turns out…):

    It seems that the Rays do pretty well in TV ratings in the local market.
    Next to no-one goes to games, but people will go downtown to do other things (unless I’m misreading the info from the locals…)

    Is it possible there just aren’t enough middle and upper middle class fans to support the team? MLB is an expensive pastime for fans these days (at least as compared to 20 or 30 years ago). I’m guessing the Rays have discounted tickets (upper deck etc), but are the demographics of the city and it’s surroundings such that maybe “watch on TV” is really all a significant part of the prospective fan base can do?

    • That’s arguably the biggest challenge that every pro sports team in Florida has to contend with, from the revenue standpoint. It also happens to the one over which they have the least amount of control.

      The abundance of low-paying service sector jobs – hello, Disney! – waters down the base of potential ticket buyers, as does the fixed incomes provided to a seemingly greater abundance of retirees. If you were to pull up the list of cities in North America ranked by per capita income, then you’d find that Orlando, Miami, Tampa/St Pete, and Jacksonville all veer much closer to the bottom than toward the top.

      That’s definitely a problem in Tampa Bay, which I feel has one too many team to support from an attendance standpoint. The conditions have to be just perfect for any one team to sustain healthy-looking crowds for more than a few years at a time (a la the Bolts right now); even then, that only means that there are few dollars to be spent on the other two teams.

      As Neil himself said, somebody has to be the bottom team. It’s just that the numbers make Tampa Bay more susceptible to bringing up the rear year after the year than any other team in the Majors.

      • I linked to the per-capita income rankings in my Deadspin article:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_metropolitan_areas_by_per_capita_income

        Tampa is 65th, Jacksonville 66th, Orlando 82nd, Miami 103rd. Though you also have: Houston 68, Los Angeles 86, Pittsburgh 90.

        • Does per capita income really tell the story though (and I know it’s harder to quantify income brackets in a given district)?

          An MSA could get into the top 20 just by having a population entirely made up of retirees who part time at McDonalds or BK (IE: a total of $25k p/a).

          While that might make the community seem relatively affluent compared to anyone outside the top 20, the reality is there isn’t much spare income for discretionary spending in a community like that.

          If I remember right, the Rays offer among the lowest avg ticket price in the majors… $15/gm in a flex pack. But the cheapest season ticket is about $1800 and the press level starts at about $3k.

          That’s cheap to well heeled fans, but probably out of reach for most on low or fixed incomes… it’s why I wonder if Tampa has “lots” of rich folk and lots of poor folk, but not as high a percentage of those in between… those are the ones buying the “non club seat” tickets in most markets (along with corporations, of course).

      • Disney is nonfactor in St. Pete. There is plenty of money here.

        The real issues are the following:

        The people of St. Pete generally are fine with the Trop. I may not look like much, but it is air conditioned, and the seats are nice enough.

        Stu has refused to say what he wants. There have been endless studies, but basically he wants someone else to pay for an $800 Million stadium, and realistically there is no reason why we should.

        If the Rays weren’t here, we still get all of the tourists and our beaches are still there. We probably make more money because the Trop land will be filled in a New York minute.

        We don’t even get the name recognition as a major league city because the team is called Tampa bay.

        Basically MLB is simply a nice to have thing. It is not worth spending a whole lot. Our civic predecessors were idiots to spend $150 million before they even had a team on a stadium that no one is ever happy with.

        If Stu were to say, I want to stay here and I will spend $600million on a stadium, he would have had a deal months ago with Tampa.

        • Per capita income does matter, but the absolute number of fans of means probably matters more. LA may be poorer than Pittsburgh, but it surely has as many well-heeled fans as Pittsburgh has people.

          What probably matters more is corporate strength, since season tickets make up a big percentage of most MLB teams’ sales and corporate customers are probably more likely to get more expensive tickets and to renew annually.

          For all of Tampa/St. Pete’s strengths, its relatively small corporate market means that teams (as mentioned elsewhere here) are more dependent on more fickle individual sales. This could explain part of the difference between Tampa and Phoenix.

  4. Thing I’d add — if you’re a Floridian, and you want to see elite athletes competing at the highest level, you can do so in March. For relatively cheap ticket prices. Same deal in Arizona.

    • Is that really competition, though? I guess I’m having a hard time picturing people thinking, “I could go to a Rays game now, or I could just wait till next March and watch the Yankees for three innings before they sub in all their minor-leaguers.” (And none of the Floridians I talked to mentioned this as a factor either.)

    • Also, then we’re faced with the question of why the Diamondbacks draw so much better than the Rays with basically the same population size to draw from.

  5. Neil
    Do you think Manfred may back down from his insistence that MLB not expand until the A’s and Rays are resolved? With Montreal now in the progress of acquiring land and PDX having acquired land, it almost seem he has to.The A’s have dragged their feet for 25 years and will drag on their stadium search on for 25 more. The Rays are stuck until 2028 when they can contemplate about the possibility of thinking about another market while they probably will be negotiating with Tampa with more leverage. The potential to poison the well for potential fans in PDX, and Montreal which would destroy any potential success in these market. Luckily for Nashville they have a mayor that isn’t having any of it.

    • I don’t see any downside for Manfred of waiting till at least 2027. What are Montreal fans going to do, go join a different pro baseball league?

  6. Would it ever be viable for the Rays to consider playing some outdoor games at Raymond James Stadium? I think that would be an effective test of the first two theories in your Deadspin article. The Rays could play there in the first half of the season, say April to early July, with maybe 3 or 4 series per season held outdoors. I’m sure the Buccaneers would want a percentage of the concessions and parking, but that could be arranged. Do you think there’d be any merit to doing so?

    • I doubt it would prove much, since in Florida you’d almost certainly need at least a sunroof outdoors. (Though maybe if they only played night games?) I’m not even sure if baseball dimensions would fit at RJS, though.

    • There’s a minor league ballpark in Tampa — right across the road from the Bucs’ home field — that could comfortably host a midweek, early-season series or two against non-blue blood opponents, and the smaller crowds that come with them… though I think the Rays are (understandably) wary of the optics of playing MLB games at a minor league venue named after George Steinbrenner.

      For what it’s worth, the Rays played two home series in as many years in Orlando/Disney back in the 2000’s, which pretty much went nowhere in terms of building a decent-sized following here.

  7. Neil, honestly a little disappointed you didn’t reach out or at least reference any of my work on TampaBayBaseballMarket.com . I could at least have told you Orlando was a non-factor. And yes, Spring Training does deflect from the Rays income. Especially with the 20% of Tampa baseball fans who identify as Yankees fans. Why drive across the bridge to the Trop when you can buy Yankees Spring tix and be at little Yankee Stadium a lot closer? Anyway, good article.