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Season Preview Part II; Nothing Personal, It's Just Business

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-What can the Devil Rays do to get more crowds like this in Tropicana Field?

Introduction

With only three more weeks to go before the 2006 season opener in Baltimore, it is time to do a little season preview series previewing what is to come for the next six months.

Last week, I introduced the series by taking a look at what happened previous to the start of this season, the ownership/front office/coaching changes, as well as the few on-field transactions. That edition can be read by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.

This week, we focus on the business side of things. What do the Devil Rays need to do to get more fannies in the seats, and although this may give away an answer, it doesn't involve a ridiculous Kane's Strikeout contest. What is wrong with the Devil Rays in their appeal to the area, what prospects does the team have for future progress, and what is on tap for this season. That all follows the jump.

Series

This is the second of a five part series detailing what is to come for the 2006 season. The series will run every Monday leading up to the April 3rd season opener in Baltimore. Next week and the following week, I take a look at the individual players, as well as the coaching staff and other useful info you need to know, and the series concludes with a look at the majors on Opening Day.

Last Week-Part I; Overview/Introduction
This Week-Part II; Nothing Personal, Its Just Business
Next Week-Part III; Hitters/Coaching Staff
Mar. 27-Part IV; Pitchers/Key Info
Apr. 3-Part V; The Rest of the Majors

Overview
The Devil Rays' struggle to bring in fan support is not exactly the most underwritten piece of information you will ever find, but there is a reason for that. With the Montreal Expos vanquished from the MLB scene, the Devil Rays were free to fall to dead last in attendance last year in Major League Baseball, finishing over 3,000 average fans below the next lowest team, the Kansas City Royals. They also finished last by over 10 percentage points in percentage of capacity filled, at 32.1. So what can the Devil Rays do to put the team on solid financial footing? Ultimately, it comes down to making the Tropicana Field visit an experience, not just a game.

$$$

It all starts with money. The Rays want it, fans have it, but some fans are a little stingy with the pocketbook. The Rays are currently the cheapest ticket in major league baseball, with their average price actually dropping from their debut in 1998 to now, without inflation adjustment. Still, a lot of that ticket price comes from cheap outfield seats, cheap lower box seats, club seats, etc. Fans who attend about 25 games a year, like myself, are not helped by that. Even with cheap prices on those seats, I still can't afford them everyday. What the team needs to do is lower the lowest prices. Create a budget section. That is originally what the airline seats and "The Beach" were for. But the Rays have taken that away, turning the airline seats into a picnic area and raising the price of "The Beach" to the same level as upper deck seats.

Who wants to sit in "The Beach" for seven bucks when an upper deck seat behind the plate costs just as much? What possible benefit is there to sitting in "The Beach" if it isn't college night, where you can get $1 beers? Make the lowest price lower. Cut the price of "The Beach" in half, and raise the upper deck prices. Make people want to go to "The Beach" and let them move around throughout the game if there are other available seats.

Let Fans Move Around/Move In

Let me ask you something. How many times have you gone to Tropicana Field and sat in a section that you did not have a ticket for, yet was completely empty? Okay, and let me ask you another question. How many times has some bitter, 70 year old usher in a Hawaiian shirt who's only satisfaction in life is making your experience miserable come up to you and kicked you out of said seat? Best bet, it has happened more than once. What possible benefit is there to this? An empty seat is an empty seat, no matter what. If a fan shows up with a ticket to that seat, or the section is nearly full, that's one thing, but what possible benefit is there to making someone move out of an empty section?

Along these same lines, why don't the Rays let fans in for free after the fifth inning and let them sit wherever they want? At some weekday afternoon game against the Kansas City Royals, why not? If you're playing the Yankees on a Saturday night and the stadium's full, that's one thing, but why not let fans in for free late in the game. Why not? What do you lose by doing this? Perhaps you even gain son. Maybe the family just returned from a day of fishing down at the Skyway, and they drive past the dome and see there is a game going on, and they wander in. You could rack up possibly triple digit figures in money if that family gets a bite to eat, or gets things at the gift shop. But if that family knows that they will be charged full price to enter a game in the seventh inning, they'll just drive on by. But if you give them a good three innings, they'll come back again and again with wallets open. What do you stand to lose?

Do the Unobvious

As I look at the list of renovations planned for next season, they strike me. A Devil Ray tank? New paint jobs? A hitter's hall of fame? These aren't things that will necessarily bring in fans by themselves, but if you put the together, and slap in upgrades that will expand your fan base, like free parking and cheaper seats, and you've got many new fans. Will people attend a ballgame because a team painted a wall? No. But will they if they combine that with other things meant to make the Trop a good overall experience? Maybe. You see, not everything you do has to have a price tag on it. It contributes to quality of life. Take, for example, your local neighborhood park. The grass is cut and new flowers are planted. Now will the city expect to make an overall profit from making the park look nice? No, they do it for the public good. They do it to improve the aura of the city, its quality of life. The same thing applies to the ballpark, and that is the principle the Rays need to incorporate into their experience.

Spread Publicity

The Rays need to spread the message for all of this to work. What good is any of it if no one hears about it? The Rays need to increasing their presence. One thing I liked was the Rays' putting a float in the Gasparilla parade. Does it guarantee that people will run up to the box office with fistfulls of cash ready? Of course not. It just lets the folks across the bay know that the Rays do indeed exist. I remember watching St. Pet's Martin Luther King parade over a year ago in St. Pete. You had your usual grandstanding politicians, but did the city's one professional sports team make any sort of appearance? No. This is what the Rays need to improve on. Put up billboards, flood the TV and radio with ads, and not just TV/Radio ads on the sports channel or during their telecasts. They need to broaden their horizons and spread the message to all demographics.

Expand the fan base

The almost 2.5 million people living in this area are more than enough to support a major league team, but the problem is, they aren't all confined in one urban area. They are spread out. Fans in Sarasota, Tampa, Lakeland, Clearwater, St. Pete, and many other areas within the West Central Florida area are integral to a pro sports team's success. And the Rays need to branch out into those areas. This has been suggested before. The team needs to organize bus trips to the Trop from these areas, come to the consumer, don't expect the consumer to come to you. The Rays have to be the "white pieces" in this game, they need to make the first move. Expand advertising, offer ticket deals, transportation, anything you can to focus on those areas. People are much more willing to traverse I-4 or I-275 when they don't have to get behind the wheel.

Another thing the Rays need to look into as it relates to their fan base is to extend it. Florida has two baseball teams, but even so, the Rays have a lot of ground that they can cover. Expand the Rays Radio Network to include all areas of Central and Northern Florida, and do the same with the TV network. Anyone who wants to watch a Rays game should be able to flip on their TV and find the same games that Tampa Bay area residents are seeing. These people watching the games may not be cash cows, and may not go to the game every weekend, but you build a fanbase and that person is more likely to go out to Target and buy a Rays jersey. The Rays need to market themselves to Florida, not just Tampa Bay, because the team's success can't exclusively be based on how many people attend the games. If you've got a large fan base, then you've done right, no matter what the financial statements say.

What the Team is Doing Right

The Rays took several steps in the right direction this year. They are publicizing the good and hiding the bad. Case in point. When the team announced ticket prices this year, they called it an overall drop, some welcome news considering how it has been raised the past couple offseasons. However most seating areas actually saw an increase in pricing, the Rays just made up for it by creating a new, cheap seating section near the bullpens that used to be part of a more expensive section. Further, the Namoli regime did go out into the community and do some charity work, just about as much as the current regime is doing. The difference, however, is all in Public Relations. The Rays never made as big of a deal about publicizing this stuff as they should have. Good PR breeds a better outlook on the team from fans. Take every little scrap of good publicity and blow it up to gigantic proportions, that is what the new regime is doing right. With the old regime, the only publicity they ever got was when they did something bad, which goes to show, if you never make light of your positives, someone else will make light of your negatives.

Another good thing the team is doing this year is promotions. They have made a big deal out of this year's promotional schedule, giving away lots of good figurines and giving people a reason to go to the ballpark. Hopefully this spells the end of the stupid Kane's 10 strikeout promotion, which was one step short of bait and switch advertising. In any case, it gives people a reason to go out to the ballpark and see teams like Kansas City. Keep it up Rays brass, you are on the right track.

What Does It All Mean?

So what will all this good PR mean for the Rays? Well, I think it will give the team an attendance boost, certainly. They can probably expect their biggest crowds since 2001, maybe even surpassing '01, and if everything breaks right, '00. But nothing can substitute for wins in any stadium not called Wrigley Field. So once the team wins more games, it will draw, just like you saw during the winning streak in 2004. It is just a matter of that happening more often. But I think the team will make gains in other areas through this positive PR. It will get increased attention from fans, it will let people know that, yes, the Bay Area does have a Major League Baseball team. It will plant the seeds for the area's fans to come out in droves when the Rays do indeed start to win. And that is all we can hope for.

Photo Credits: Baseball XXL