Does the Florida State League hurt Rays' attendance?

Ace, a FSL menace. - USA TODAY Sports

The Rays are in a unique position among MLB teams, directly competing with the minor leagues.

On June 15th, the Florida State League played their 52nd All-Star game. It was a gala occasion, with stars of each team coming together to show the best and brightest of the Class High-A league. For the Rays, prospects Curt Casali and pitchers Ryan Carpenter and Jesse Hahn of the Charlotte Stone Crabs wore the jersey of the South All-Stars.

Over three thousand fans were in attendance watching the game — fans of the league, of the teams, of the prospects, and of baseball. They came from near and far, sporting jerseys and hats of every team, from Fort Myers to Daytona, from West Palm Beach to Brevard County.

It was a celebration of Minor League Baseball at its finest.

The only problem was the game and the festivities surrounding it took place at Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Florida, a mere 38 minutes from Tropicana Field where the Rays were playing the Kansas City Royals. Although the Rays started at 4pm and the Florida State League All-Star Game didn’t begin until 7pm, not many, if any, fans made the immediate drive from St. Petersburg to Dunedin for more baseball.

Hosting an all-star game in the Tampa Bay area is not out of the norm for the Florida State League. On June 18th 2011, the league held their all-star game at Brighthouse Field, the home of the Clearwater Threshers. Also on a Saturday, the game was played on the same day and at the same time the Rays were playing the Florida Marlins. While the Rays drew slightly over 20,000, the 2011 FSL All-Star Game drew over 5,000 attendees.

While the Rays only have to compete against local Florida State League All-Star galas once a year every few years, they must compete with the league itself on a daily basis. Although the league had a down year for attendance in 2012, its presence with five teams within an hour of Tropicana Field is a constant drain on the Rays' ability to completely capture the baseball market in the Tampa Bay area. Granted, the presence of multiple minor league teams is not the sole reason for the Rays’ constant lack of attendance, but it is a factor worth exploring.

As mentioned, there are currently five Florida State League teams that play within an hour of Tropicana Field: the Tampa Yankees (22 miles/ 27 minutes), Clearwater Threshers (17.5 miles/ 29 minutes), Dunedin Blue Jays (23 miles/ 38 minutes), Bradenton Pirates (26.3 miles/ 34 minutes), and Lakeland Tigers (57 miles/ 1 hour). Baseball in each of these cities pre-date the existence of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays by many years, with the Bradenton Growers, Lakeland Highlanders, and Tampa Smokers participating in the first rendition of the FSL way back in 1919. Of course, even St. Petersburg itself has a long minor league baseball history dating back to the St. Pete Saints, who entered the Class D Florida State League in 1920.

Adding only a third of the regional FSL attendance increases the Rays from 13th to 9th.

But while minor league baseball ceased in St. Petersburg in 2000 when the then-Devil Rays moved their affiliation to Bakersfield, California, baseball in the surrounding cities has not. In 2012, FSL teams within an hour of Tropicana Field drew 504,173 according to MinorLeagueBaseball.com. This year, halfway through the season, they are on pace to match, if not exceed that number, and that is only butts in the seats. It does not account for income Minor League teams make on advertizing dollars or corporate packages.

In 2012, the Rays drew 1,559,681 people to Tropicana Field. Adding the total attendance of all the minor league teams within an hour, the Rays attendance would jump to 2,013, 854 – from 14th to 9th in the American League. Considering it is highly unlikely every fan would have opted to go to Tropicana Field instead of the Florida State League game, taking only 1/3 (a completely arbitrary number) of the 2012 attendance for FSL teams within an hour of Tropicana Field increases the Rays attendance to 1,727,738 — from 14th to 12th in the league. This year, adding only a third of the regional FSL attendance increases the Rays from 13th to 9th in the now 15-team American League. Hundreds of thousands of fans are not small numbers.

According to Forbes.com, the population of the metro Tampa Bay area is 2,733,800. The Tampa Bay Times lists the metro area as including Hernando County, but not Manatee (home of Bradenton) or Polk (home of Lakeland). Adding those two cities in areas the Rays count in their own demographic studies, the Rays potential market increases to 2,881,894. With five minor league teams in the area, that is one team for every 480,315 people. Compare the Tampa area to the mega-market of the New York Yankees, who only have to compete for the 22,214,083 people in the NY metro area with the Mets; the minor league Staten Island Yankees, Trenton Thunder, and Brooklyn Cyclones; and the independent Newark Bears and Long Island Ducks. With seven teams in the area, that’s still one team for every 3,173,440 people.

In regards to proximity of Minor League teams and competition for fans, the Rays are in a unique situation. Only the Arizona Diamondbacks, with their neighboring Arizona League, compare to the Rays’ battle for fans. Counting the 13 teams of the Arizona League and the Diamondbacks, there is one team per 300,000 people in the 4.2 million people Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Several differences apply, however, between the Arizona League and the Florida State League. One, the Arizona League, like the Florida-based Gulf Coast League, is a "Rookie League," designated for high school players and other athletes making their first jump to professional baseball. Second, also like the Gulf Coast League, the Arizona League is a "free ticket league," where attendance is not counted. The lack of attention on attendance means the Arizona League, like the GCL, probably doesn’t market their product like Florida State League teams do. Major League teams are willing to take more of a financial loss on the developmental Rookie Leagues than they are on their Florida State League affiliates. Hence, we can’t count the Arizona League as the same competition for the Diamondback’s dollar as we can the Florida State League’s efforts.

In basic economic terms, is Major League baseball a good that is replaceable by a somewhat inferior product? Or is what the Rays are selling at the level where fans would pass Minor League baseball for the Major League product? How elastic is the demand for professional baseball in the Tampa Bay area? These are questions for the economists, anthropologists, and marketing people.

So what can the Rays do right now?

Not much.

Under the current geographic positioning of professional baseball, the struggle to win the heart, mind, and dollars of the Florida baseball fan comes down to a battle of marketing departments and budgets. The Rays marketing team must compete with local minor league entities as they would Busch Gardens, the Tampa Aquarium, or any other competing entertainment venues, even if minor league entities are selling essentially the same product. The Rays have some avenues of attack, such as limiting Minor League promotion of Major League entities, such as in 2009 when the Rays stopped the Clearwater Threshers from handing out bobbleheads of Major League Phillies. But other than that, the Rays cannot prevent minor league teams from doing any Minor League promotion or Major League teams from sending their stars, such as the Yankees’ Derek Jeter or Toronto’s Jose Reyes, to the Tampa Bay area for rehab, and indirectly siphoning fans from Tropicana Field.

How elastic is the demand for professional baseball in the Tampa Bay area?

While the Rays stand defenseless, Minor League Baseball has become big business in the Tampa Bay area. The Threshers, with their $1 dollar nights and Thirsty Thursdays are regularly among the top draws in the Florida State League. Meanwhile, the Bradenton Marauders recently added 10 million dollars in upgrades to historic McKechnie Field to include a tiki bar, an upgraded scoreboard, and more concession stands. Putting the cost of the upgrade into perspective, the Rays put $35 million into Tropicana Field after the 2006 season for a stadium five times bigger.

In a perfect world, Major League teams would conduct spring training on the west coast of Florida and once the big league teams travel north, their minor league affiliates would travel east, playing their games up and down Florida’s east coast, keeping their all-star game far out of the Rays’ market, and focusing the Florida State League from Daytona in the north, Orlando in the west, and Fort Lauderdale in the south. Re-locating the league along the coast could also return baseball to cities such as Vero Beach and Cocoa. If such a plan were enacted, it would of course mean moving established FSL franchises from historic cities such as Clearwater, Lakeland, and Tampa, but could reinvigorate baseball in Orlando, the nation’s 20th largest metro area and the largest without even a minor league team.

As towns such as Viera and Kissimmee prepare for the exodus of their spring teams either west or south, moving Florida State teams to Central Florida and the state’s east coast could add back some of the missing income while giving the Rays sole ownership of Florida’s west coast and along the I-4 corridor to Orlando. Limiting the southern locations to Fort Lauderdale/West Palm and Fort Myers on the West Coast would also not infringe on the Marlins Miami market any more than the Florida State League already does. And it fits the governor's new initiative to keep teams in Florida and not see them bolt to Arizona for Spring Training.

There is no doubt shifting the Florida State League out of the Rays market would be voted down by not only Major League ownership but Minor League ownership as well. And the Rays have enough problems with the politics of St. Petersburg and Tampa to risk the ire of several other cities along the west coast. But if it means adding butts to seats at the Major League level, isn’t moving the Florida State League out of the Rays’ market a good thing for baseball?

DRaysBay writer Scott Grauer assisted with the distance data in this article.

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