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.”