Rays’ primary struggle remains getting seats filled

February 19, 2011

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. � You might think the burning question for the Tampa Bay Rays this season is whether they’ll stay competitive in the American League East, following their second division title in the last three seasons and the recent cost-cutting roster overhaul.

However, the real drama for the franchise may not be unfolding on the field in 2011 — but in the grandstand.

The issue of how to get fans through the Tropicana Field turnstiles remains unresolved for a club that’s become a hit in the standings yet continually whiffed at the box office.

Make no mistake: The Rays do have fans — hundreds of thousands in the Tampa Bay area alone area who follow them on TV, the newspapers and the Internet, according to research data, along with a jump in TV ratings of 77 percent last season on the statewide Sun Sports network.

They just don’t have fannies in the seats.

What’s more, there’s no immediate answer on the Gulf of Mexico horizon on how to make that happen, only vaguely ominous storm clouds in the distance that have created an element of uncertainty about the club’s long-term future in the market.

As the Rays prepare for their 14th season, the issue of poor attendance continues to hover amid the controversial catwalks of their domed home on the edge of downtown St. Petersburg.

It was no big surprise that the Rays failed to draw during the dark days of their first decade of existence, when losses piled up inside the cavernous Trop and crowds ranked among baseball’s most paltry — including 14th of the AL’s 14 teams from 2001 through 2007. The only times they seemed to attract spectators regularly was when
transplanted legions of die-hard Yankees and Red Sox fans piled in to root for the opposition.

But throughout those dismal times, there was always the promise that if and when the Rays became winners, fan support at the Trop would grow proportionately.

While winning leads to solid attendance for most pro sports franchises, it hasn’t happened for the Rays.

Here’s one big reason: St. Pete and Tampa aren’t separated by a bay — they’re divided by a gulf.

Pure and simple, the historical, deep-seated regional rivalry between the two cities over the years has taken a toll on Rays attendance. Tampa has the Bucs in spitting distance of a major highway in its own backyard. It has the Lightning. It even has the major airport and Busch Gardens for good measure. Tampa is where the area’s movers and shakers have traditionally been.

But three decades ago when area leaders chased big-league baseball, St. Pete emerged as the upstart winner, A bulky dome rose in the mid-1980s on an essentially free tract of land previously called the Gas Plant, in a non-descript, non-central regional locale that many on the Tampa side disdained from the get-go — including late Yankees owner and Tampa resident George Steinbrenner. The Boss launched his famous verbal shot across the bay at St. Pete as “nothing but a bunch of old people and a rickety bridge to get there.”

Times have changed. St. Pete has long since shed its old retiree image for a younger, family-based demographic and a more modern vibe. The Howard Frankland Bridge — once mocked as the “Howard Frankenstein” in its cramped single-span years — is no longer rickety, opening a second span twenty years ago.

Yet one thing hasn’t changed. A distinct, provincial mindset still exists among some on the Tampa side of the bay — among both residents and the corporations crucial for season-ticket support — that view St. Pete as too far to drive at 30, 45 or 60 minutes on a regular basis.

The Trop also gets knocked for being unable to draw from the west, since the only potential demographic groups are the fish in the Gulf of Mexico. But that argument holds no water. The reality is that the Rays’ home is among the most accessible among major league markets in any sport, ribboned by interstate highway access from the north and south and eminently accessible by car from any point in the greater Tampa Bay area.

The Rays’ attendance did jump in their surprise, storybook season of 2008 under manager Joe Maddon, rising from an average nightly attendance of 17,131 to 22,370, the club still ranked 12th of 14 AL teams.

In 2009, the Rays fell short of their dizzying success of ’08, but the franchise’s second winning season ever caused an attendance bump to an average of 23,148, though still only better than three other AL clubs.

Then came last year’s rebound to the top of arguably baseball’s toughest division. But even with some memorable Trop duels where Rays fans finally seemed to outnumber and out-shout Red Sox and Yankees fans in attendance, a second trip to the post-season hardly set the Trop gates spinning. The average crowd size dipped to 23,045, yet that still proved good enough for an uptick to ninth in the league.

Last year’s club had a split personality. It got off to one of the best starts in baseball, then turned into a team whose passive-aggressive offense could score without hitting (victimized by a Dallas Braden perfect game and the surreal Edwin Jackson no-hitter in which he walked eight Rays).  The initially stellar starting pitching, other than ace David Price, was up and down. Only the shutdown relief work by Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit literally saved them. The entertainment quotient didn’t measure up to the aggressive, steadier style of the ’08 Rays, reinforced by veterans like Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske.

Who knows, perhaps the arrival of hard-hitting marquee vets Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon will juice the offense up this season and their lively, entertaining styles will excite the fans enough to get them into the house.

“Having fans in the stand means all the difference in the world to us,” Maddon said. “The energy they provide nightly to our team is incredible. Our record is good at home, but when that place is packed, it’s really good at home.”

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg held a press conference last June to say the Trop was no longer a viable option for the Rays. The message: a new stadium at a more central geographic location to the fan base, nearer denser population areas, was a must. There was even the hint that if provincial concerns couldn’t be set aside in the search for a new stadium site, then a move beyond the area — even state — wasn’t out of the question.

But this past week, Sternberg met with the media to field questions on a sunsplashed, spring training morning in Port Charlotte and sounded a more upbeat note. He insisted that he is “dead-set on making this work” in Tampa Bay and addressed the puzzling, frustrating equation that has dogged the team management in recent seasons: high fan interest plus winning baseball equals poor attendance.

“First and most important is fan interest,” he said. “And we have a tremendous amount of interest. Going back three, four years to 2006 and 2007, that was really the most important part of the equation — was to get people to care about our baseball games, whether they were following in the newspaper, following us on the Internet, watching TV at night on the 11 o’clock newscasts, and most importantly listening to us on the radio and watching us on TV. We hit those marks and hit them spectacularly.

“So the level of interest is there and that does give me a huge amount of optimism. Looking at the raw numbers, to see that just in our local area and region, to see that we have on average 400,000-500,000 people a night taking interest and watching over a 162-game season is dramatic.”

One of the fundamental problems has been an inability to get widespread support from area corporations, which in major markets buy up huge amounts of season tickets and purchase revenue-producing luxury boxes. But an even bigger problem is the overall lack of corporations based in Tampa Bay.

“That’s not something I can do anything about,” Sternberg said. “That’s not going to change in the near future. What is important to us is that the businesses — small, medium and large that are here give us some support and more support. Those that do are great � But we need greater support.”

The city of Tampa has the lion’s share of corporations in the area, but getting them to buy season tickets and bulk up thin mid-week attendance remains a challenge. It appears to be the old “too far to drive” mentality at play. But building a new ballpark closer to the corporate centers is no guarantee of success, either, because fans back in St. Pete and surrounding Pinellas County might be lost. It could wind up as a wash.

Ultimately, Sternberg’s biggest challenge is this: How to translate the Rays’ avid fandom into a steady stream of paying customers. He and his management team have succeeded in enhancing the fan and family experience with dazzling graphics, along with humorous and hip scoreboard bits (see YouTube cult hit Keyboard Cat, for instance). They’ve kept ticket prices affordable by league standards, but in today’s fragile economy — especially in Florida — many would-be fans have probably had a hard time justifying shelling out money for tickets and concessions when they’re worried about paying the mortgage.

Fans showed up droves when the team gave away 20,000 free tickets to create a sellout at the home finale last season — two nights after the much-publicized comments by stars Evan Longoria and David Price that called a crowd of 12,000-plus an “embarrassment” for a game the Rays might have clinched a playoff spot.

And Saturday, the club held its annual free event, Fan Fest — also an unprecedented mob scene, with what looked like a sellout crowd roaming the dome’s new Astroturf floor. “I wish this would happen at all the games,” remarked a longtime fan, Gay Ritchison.

The Rays do, too.

But so far, many fans seem content to show their love — just not their money.