Are the Tampa Bay Rays actually rooting for bad attendance?

Tampa-Bay-Rays-Stadium-Wallpaper
Closing off the upper deck accomplished a few things for the Rays

Top question I get regarding the Rays stadium saga: “Where will the team be playing in 2027?”

Answer: I don’t know.

Second most-frequent question I’m asked about the Rays: “Do you think the team is intentionally tanking at the box office?”

This answer is a bit more nuanced.

No, I don’t think the team is trying to suppress attendance like the Cleveland Indians did in the movie “Major League.”

However, like that Roger Dorn– and Ricky Vaughn-led Indians team, it doesn’t hurt the Rays’ argument for relocation when one can count all the fans in any given section using just your fingers and toes.

This week has been an especially futile one for the Rays, drawing a franchise-low crowd of 5,786 Tuesday, followed by just 6,166 Wednesday, despite racking up a six-game win-streak and closing to within a half-game of the red-hot Yankees for first place in the AL East.

Thank goodness for the Miami Marlins, whose 9,478 fans per night (at their modern, taxpayer-funded stadium) is the only thing keeping the Rays’ 13,731 per-game average from another last-place MLB finish.

Attendance at the Trop is actually up 51 fans per game from the same point last year, and it would have been higher had the Rays not closed off their upper deck this season, limiting attendance to just 25,025 at each of their three sellouts so far.

Closing off the upper deck has also allowed the Rays to reduce day-of-game operating costs, while reducing the number of cheap seats available to fans; it’s essentially a ticket-price hike for games that draw a half-decent crowd.

Yet, most nights, there’s no shortage of good, cheap seats available … why?

It isn’t because the Rays want empty seats, or even need them to make their point about long-term profitability.

It’s more likely that the team’s repeated mantra of “our home is not a good home to play or watch baseball in” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy over the last ten seasons. If you repeat something enough, people will eventually believe you.

Anecdotally, I think another factor is the team’s not-so-subtle reminders they may be playing in another state come 2027; I’ve seen this push would-be fanatics away from the team.

So, the Rays essentially find themselves in the same death spiral the Expos fell victim to in their last few, uncertain seasons in Montreal … with one difference: profits.

The MLB’s business model is much different now than it was in 2004, with a much bigger share of revenue coming from digital and broadcast rights than from inside the stadium.

Not to mention, even though the Rays may not be drawing any more fans than they did last year, if they raised the average price of tickets, they can continue to increase revenues without an increase at the turnstile.

The Rays haven’t responded to my requests for comment in a very long time, but team president Brian Auld told ABC Action News, “We appreciate the support of our fans, and we believe that St. Petersburg, Tampa and the entire Tampa Bay region will rally around this exciting and compelling Rays team.”

I truly believe Auld and Matt Silverman and Melanie Lenz and the rest of the Rays’ front office wants to make a new Tampa Bay ballpark happen, but it simply won’t under Stu Sternberg‘s watch if he has to pay for it.

I also believe Rays executives would like more fans to come out to watch their great product. They may be making healthy profits (most MLB teams are), but there’s always a thirst for more.

So no, the Rays have no reason to root for lower attendance — a few thousand fans here or there won’t do much to change their stadium situation. But as long as the revenues keep flowing in, I don’t know if the team really minds the bad box office numbers, either.

Noah Pransky

Noah Pransky is a multiple award-winning investigative reporter, most recently with the CBS affiliate in Tampa. He’s uncovered major stories such as uncovering backroom deals in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and other political investigations. Pransky also ran a blog called Shadow of the Stadium, giving readers a deep dive into the details of potential financial deals and other happenings involving the Tampa Bay- area sports business.


5 comments

  • Jim Donelon

    May 31, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    Stu wants all the T.V. revenue, plus fans in the seats so he can line his pockets. There is nothing wrong with the Trop. that a few million wouldn’t fix. Derby Lane is the ONLY sensible place for a new ballpark, if they decide to go that route.

    Vince screwed up the fan base big time !!!!

  • Jeffrey McKenney

    May 31, 2019 at 10:54 pm

    The decrease in attendance is league wide. The Rays started bottoming out way back in 1999. It took the new experience of being in the playoff’s in 2008 to push numbers up, but that was only for postseason play. I’m a long-time fan that has attended a minimum of 20 games a year, but nothing I do or say will help increase attendance. I just don’t know enough true baseball fans with the time or financial resources to attend games on a regular basis. That or those same friends don’t care about the Rays because they’re transplants to the area. 2 teams with over 50 years of play under their belt has shown that Florida is better suited to remain a spring training state.

  • Mj

    June 2, 2019 at 12:01 am

    The other part of the issue for low attendance is that Florida(especially Tampa bay) is flooded with fans living here from other areas like New York, Boston, LA ect. that only come to Rays games when Tampa plays their previous home teams. The Ray’s front office need to do something to attract those New locals to more games other than when the Rays play their previous local teams.

  • Dave

    June 2, 2019 at 11:43 am

    Doesn’t the lease have language about if the Rays continue to have poor support for the team it provides for a legal way out of the lease?

    By our own non-scientific calculations – we believe the Rays would pull on average 15k-20k by having a stadium in Tampa.

    I also believe there our revenue sources untapped that fleece the people that visits this state. Imagine that. A new stadium built by tourists!

  • Ryan

    June 7, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    Look, I’m a native. Even though I’ve spent the last decade in Texas, I grew up with this team. To say that Stuart Sternberg doesn’t care about ticket sales because he’s making money via revenue sharing is a completely ridiculous. Of course he cares about ticket sales and attendance. It’s still revenue in his pocket. When businesses pay to advertise around the ballpark, they’d paid more for a stadium with 30k sets of eyes vs. 5k sets of eyes.

    More butts in the seats means more advertising revenue, it means more merchandise sales, and it means more concession sales. If he didn’t care about butts in the seats, he wouldn’t have just ran a $5 ticket promotion (which still failed, btw.)

    To put it simple, the Rays suffer from a myriad of problems.

    1. MLB waited too long to place teams in Florida.

    By the time MLB expanded to Florida, Florida had become a state of transients from the Northeast and Midwest, natives had passed citrus as the states largest export. Thus, natives were leaving and transplants weren’t giving up the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs. There’s no fan base for the Rays or Marlins.

    2. Tropicana Field is in a TERRIBLE location.

    I love St. Pete, St. Pete Beach is my favorite place in the world. That said, when most games are played on week nights and most first pitches are at 7:05pm, it’s hard to live in Tampa, Eastern Hillsborough, Polk, or even Orange counties, get off work at 5pm, drive home to change, hit I-4 to 275 or the Crosstown, get to St. Pete, park, find your seat, then get home late in the evening/early in the morning and get ready for work the following day. It’s just never going to happen.

    The best place for a stadium is central to your fan base. That’s why the Texas Rangers play in Arlington and not Dallas or Fort Worth. Pinellas County is surrounded by water, the only way in or out for most fans is across a bridge and there are no fans to the West, it’s all water. For most games, Tropicana Field just isn’t accessible to most fans in West Central Florida.

    3. Tropicana Field is a dump.

    Indoor baseball is excellent in Florida, in the summer, but Tropicana Field is a dump, it’s outdated and obsolete. It’s continuously ranked as the worst stadium in North American sports.

    4. MLB doesn’t seem to care that the Rays biggest rival and biggest fan threat, the Yankees, hold their spring training home in Tampa.

    How ridiculous is that?

    5. When the Marlins screwed over the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County, they ruined it for everyone. No municipalities in Florida are going to fork over any money for stadiums anymore. It’s something that Stephen Ross of the Dolphins found out first hand.

    Tampa/Hillsborough has fumbled their opportunity to eventually play host to the Rays, St. Pete/Pinellas will never find the money to build a new and suitable stadium in a decent location for the Rays.

    At this point, if I were to make a prediction, I’d say it’s about a 95% chance that the Rays already have one foot out the door.

    If it’s true what you said, that Stu doesn’t care about attendance, that he’ll get his money one way or another, what difference would it make to him if he wasn’t selling tickets in St. Pete or not selling tickets in San Antonio, Portland, Charlotte, Montreal, or where ever else is interested in having a team?

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