How Rays keep score

BY STEPHEN NOHLGREN and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER

Times Staff Writers

ST. PETERSBURG – After all of the 2010 season’s home runs and
strikeouts and wins and losses, the one number that will be
remembered well into the offseason and may determine the fate of
the
Tampa
Bay
Rays is this: 23,024.

That’s the average attendance at Tropicana Field, ranking it
22nd out of 30 Major League Baseball teams. Throughout the season,
as the
Rays climbed to the top of
baseball’s toughest division, the persistence of empty seats became
the subject of sports radio chatter, newspaper columns and TV talk
shows.

Near the end of the season, after 12,446 attended a game in
which the
Rays could have clinched, All-Stars
Evan Longoria and David Price criticized the fans.

Earlier this month, ESPN cited unnamed sources in reporting that
baseball commissioner Bud Selig “instructed
Rays management not to make
significant financial investments in the area until attendance
indicators improve.” Michael Kalt, the senior vice president of
development and business affairs for the
Rays, said he didn’t know of any
communications on that subject between the club and Selig.

Still, the unsourced report supports the perception that the
Rays can’t remain competitive in
downtown St. Petersburg.
Rays officials declined comment for
this story, but owner Stu Sternberg said this summer that he wants
to explore alternative stadium sites, including Tampa.

But does this season’s total attendance of 1,864,999 prove that
the
Rays can’t remain in St.
Petersburg?

It raises questions for some, such as Alan Bomstein, a
Clearwater contractor and a board member of the ABC Coalition,
which was formed last year to review sites for a
Rays stadium.

“It’s not totally dreadful,” Bomstein said. “But they had the
best record in the American League with 96 wins, and you would have
expected attendance to rise over last year.”

Club expectations high

Yet in some respects, 23,000 per game isn’t as bad as it’s been
portrayed, said Neil deMause, editor of the Field of Schemes
website and a critic of public funding for sports stadiums.

DeMause said the
Rays’ attendance wasn’t far off the
pace of similar markets, such as Cincinnati, which won the National
League pennant and drew more than 25,000 a game, placing it 20th,
and San Diego, which competed for the National League west crown
and drew 26,000 a game, ranking it 18th. The Atlanta Braves didn’t
sell out in their playoff game this year.

Only a few elite teams – such as the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox,
Dodgers, Cardinals and Giants – consistently draw well, he
said.

“It’s a pretty short list,”

deMause said. “Everybody else is going to be selling tickets
when they are good and not selling when they are not so good. The
Rays will not turn themselves into
the Yankees or even the Giants by building a new stadium or moving
to Tampa.”

But the
Rays won big this season, and still
didn’t meet the club’s attendance expectations. In the past, the
Rays have said they would like
attendance near the league average of about 30,000 a game. In a
meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board this year,
Kalt estimated that a new stadium might get them about half of that
7,000 difference, and a downtown Tampa location would get the other
half.

The
Rays are locked into an agreement
with St. Petersburg, however, that keeps them at Tropicana Field
through 2027.

Mayor Bill Foster said the attendance, while disappointing,
wasn’t a reflection of fan interest. TV viewership was dramatically
up this season. Indeed, the Texas Rangers drew a 5.9 share in the
Dallas-Fort Worth area for Game 1 of the Division Series. The
Rays nearly doubled that with a 9.6
share in Tampa Bay.

Foster blames a bad economy. The fact that the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers can’t sell out their games despite a 3-1 record, he
said, only proves his point.

Foster said there are plenty of signs that the days of big
profits for sports teams may be over. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio echoed
Foster, and said that cities and counties don’t have the largesse
to help fund stadiums anymore.

“It’s a different era,” Iorio said. “Finances are so limited
that local government has to focus on providing basic services for
its citizens. Something like building a stadium is something that
the private sector should do, and maybe it’s something it should
have been doing all along.”

Attendance this year didn’t reflect lack of support, Iorio
said.

“People have lost their jobs, have had their hours reduced, or
haven’t seen their wages increase in several years,” she said. “In
a down economic time, they will cut the family’s entertainment
expenses first, but that’s not a reflection of how we feel about
the
Rays or the Bucs.”

Timing is everything

The
Rays’ timing couldn’t have been
worse, said Vince Gennaro, author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics
of Winning in Baseball.

Most emerging teams get a boost in the year following their
first World Series appearance. The
Rays first made it to the Series in
2008, when the economy was collapsing.

“They ended up leaving a lot of cash on the table because the
fans couldn’t step up in the offseason with season tickets,”
Gennaro said.

Housing prices in Tampa Bay dropped more than 40 percent during
this period, the second largest decline in the nation. The
unemployment rate is one of the five highest.

“So I’m sympathetic to Tampa Bay’s situation,” Gennaro said.

At the same time, however, hard-hit places like Detroit drew an
average of 30,000 fans per game. So the stadium’s location,
condition and outdatedness are contributing to the problem, he
said.

“In baseball terms, it’s too early to tell if the
Rays are viable in this market,” he
said. “And you certainly wouldn’t want to decide that in an economy
like this.”