The Tampa Bay Rays entered last night’s action needing just one win to clinch a playoff spot for only the second time in franchise history. Rays’ fans seemed unimpressed by the potential accomplishment, however, as only 12,446 fans showed up for the game against the Orioles.
The sparse crowds to which the Rays have been playing have not gone unnoticed by the players. After last night’s lightly attended game, a boiling point seemed to be reached as All Star third baseman Evan Longoria openly questioned the empty seats.
We’ve been playing great baseball all year. Since I’ve been here in , the fans have wanted a good baseball team. They’ve wanted to watch a contender. And for us to play good baseball for three years now, and for us to be in a spot to clinch again and go to the playoffs, we’re all confused as to why it’s only 15,000 to 20,000 in the building.” – Evan Longoria, quoted by ESPN.com news services
Longoria wasn’t alone in expressing his disappointment. Following the Monday night loss to the Orioles, David Price took to Twitter to voice his dismay. “Had chance to clinch postseason spot tonight w/about 10k fans in the stands,” Price commented not long after the game. Although the ace lefty followed soon thereafter with an apology, the cat had already been let out of the bag. As is often the case in this age of social media, Price’s message made its way around the internet with lightening speed, eliciting strong reactions from both sides of the issue.
Those critical of Longoria and Price have pointed to the Tampa regions relatively high unemployment as well as the inconvenient location of the Tropicana Dome as reasons for the depressed attendance, but in a region of nearly 3 million people, those excuses don’t really compute. At an average price of $18, Rays’ tickets are among the cheapest in baseball, so the team is not prohibitively pricing itself out of the market.
Meanwhile, those who support the players’ comments have pointed to the fans’ apathy as evidence that the Tampa market isn’t willing to support baseball. However, the Rays’ high television ratings seem to suggest a strong level of interest in the team. So, why is there a disconnect?
At TYU, Moshe Mandel presents several reasons why attendance at the ballpark has been depressed. Regardless of why fans have been staying away from the Tropicana Dome, the team and the community need to collaborate on a solution.
Not helping matters, however, has been the recent public posturing by Rays’ owner Stuart Sternberg. Last Wednesday, Sternberg told reporters that there was nothing that could prevent the Rays from having to significantly trim down payroll during the offseason. Regardless of the veracity of such a statement, the timing was curious to say the least. On the one hand, the Rays expect their fan base to make a long-term investment in the team, but on the other hand the owner is openly declaring his unwillingness to do the same. Can you blame the community for not exactly buying into the team?
Nothing can change that. Unfortunately there’s nothing that can happen between now and April that can change that unless (manager) Joe Maddon hits the lottery and wants to donate it or I hit the lottery.” – Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, USA Today, September 22, 2010
Not surprisingly, many in the media have been sympathetic to Sternberg’s plight. After all, if the fans in Tampa wont come to games, why should the team spend any money? As is often the case, such sentiment is blinded by an economic smokescreen often put forth by sport team owners.
According to Forbes, the Rays have had $146 million in operating profit since 2004, during which time the franchise value has increased by 80% to $316 million. Sternberg first bought into the Rays when he led an investment group that purchased 48% of the team for $65 million. Sternberg eventually bought out former owner Vince Namoli in 2005 and has since seen his investment increase significantly. Obviously, no one should be shedding a tear for Sternberg, nor should they be so easy to accept his cries of poverty.
In many ways, the Rays are confronted with a chicken and egg situation. The Sternberg group seems to be demanding an overwhelming response before making a more significant long-term investment in the team, while the fan base has been tepid to the team’s success because of its tenuous status in the community.
Although the Rays’ players initial response has been to question the fans, their doubts would be more appropriately directed toward ownership. Sternberg knew the market in which he was entering, so its reticence to support the team should not come as a surprise. Instead of threatening a cut back, the Rays’ ownership should be promising increased investment. In order to sustainably grow revenue, risk is required. Simply spending to break even won’t result in the level of growth needed to support the team in the long run, and such a strategy is hard to justify when you consider the team’s favorable economics. It would be nice if Rays’ fan would come out to the ballpark in droves, but until ownership has done everything possible to make that happen, the raised eyebrows around baseball should not be cast upon the fans.