The Birth of a Fanbase: The Tampa Bay Rays and Television

It's funny how compelling dominant narratives can be. Joe Posnanski recently wrote a great article discussing how the pre-season narrative surrounding the Mariners led many to falsely overestimate the team's ability. People got sucked into the hype and flashy moves - oh man, Cliff Lee! - and overlooked many of the warning signs, like the fact that the team had no offense. This sort of event reeks of groupthink, where everyone in a community is thinking along the same lines and contradictory evidence is ignored or overlooked. The media and the saber-community both seemed to fall into this trap with the Mariners; not everyone did, of course, but it sure seemed like more people than not were fans of the Mariners in February. It's a tough trap to avoid - psychologically speaking, humans are predisposed towards agreeing with others and fitting in. Narratives are compelling.

When it comes to the Rays, one of the dominant narratives in the national media is that there is an issue with the Tampa Bay area: namely, they don't support the Rays. If the Rays ever go something good, like throw a no-hitter or jump into first place, it seems I can't watch a segment or read an article without the Rays' attendance being discussed. Too bad there weren't more fans there to see the no-hitter. It's a shame Tampa-St. Pete can't appreciate how good this team is.

Of course, not everyone in the media goes this route, but it's still frustrating how often it comes up. If you want to engage in a discussion about the Rays' attendance and Matthew Silverman's statements this season about needing a new stadium, fine; when comments are brought up in passing, though, they paint the picture of Tampa Bay as an area that cannot support a baseball team and doesn't appreciate the great team they currently have. It's a compelling narrative to people not close to the situation, but one that does a disservice to all the great fans in the Tampa-St. Pete area.

The fact is, this team's fanbase is growing...and growing fast. Let's take a look.

While the Rays' game attendance hasn't improved any since last season (their attendance has dipped by about 500 fans per game, although rank-wise, the Rays have improved to ninth in the league as opposed to eleventh), fans in the ballpark isn't the only way to measure a fanbase. Game attendance is focused on so highly because it's the way that most teams make the most profit, but to measure a fanbase, we need to measure something less tangible. How many fans care about the Rays? What's the depth of their fandom? Are people wearing Rays-related apparel more frequently? Are people in the area talking about the Rays more? Are their games on televisions in local pubs? All these are things that matter, yet we have very little way of proving if they've improved one way or the other.

One way to measure the Rays' fanbase is to look at how many fans are following their games on a daily basis. Part of this is game attendance, sure, but you also need to consider how many people are watching the games on their televisions. And when it comes to both of these areas, the Rays have seen tremendous growth this season:

2009

2010

Average Rating

2.69

5.52

Avg. # of Households

49,000

99,681

*All data comes from the Sports Business Journal.

The "average rating" represents the percentage of households in the market area that are viewing the game each night, meaning 5.52% of the Tampa-St. Pete market is tuning in for Rays' games each evening. This ranks the Rays seventh in all of baseball. Even if you decide to look at the total number of households in the market watching the Rays play, at nearly 100,000 televisions per evenings, the Rays rank eleventh in all of baseball. That puts the Rays ahead of many teams with much, much larger markets. Heck, the Rays are even ahead of the Dodgers (99K households to 92K) despite the fact that there are 12.8 million people in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and only 2.75 million in the Tampa-St. Pete area.

Also, this data was compiled in early July, so the numbers have possibly improved since then. The Rays-Yankees series over the trade deadline weekend set all-time records for viewership. It was by far the most watched regular season series in the Rays' history - viewership peaked at 12.5% of the Tampa-St. Pete market - and Saturday's game against the Yankees was the most watched regular-season game in franchise history. Yes, they were against the Yankees and so you can argue that Yankee fans boosted the ratings, but it's not like this it the first time the Rays have played the Yankees. Fans are beginning to care about the Rays and I wouldn't be surprised if more television records are set by the end of the season.

The Tampa-St. Pete area is a strong and vibrant area, full of sports history and baseball energy. It takes time to build a fanbase, but the local fans are finally responding to the Rays' success and jumping on-board, just not in the way most people anticipated. Knock the Rays' attendance if you want, but don't knock the fans. Even if you don't think they are, they're watching. And they care.

A big thanks to Amy Pempel from Sun Sports for providing me with the data for this article. Much appreciated!

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