I loathe writing about attendance, not because it's unimportant to the business cycle, but rather because it's so mundane and repetitive. There are three ways to draw attendance:
1. Win (long-term effective)
2. Build a new ballpark. (short-term effective)
3. Sign star players. (short-term effective)
Option one is the easiest of the three. Option two requires public support (and money) and option three requires a good clubhou...uh, more money. Winning requires money as well, but usually far less than the investment in a new piece of land, materials, planning, projecting, marketing, persuading, constructing, ect. or convincing a player not to be overpaid by bigger markets, but rather to be overpaid by you, and become "a part of something special."
Partially in light of the Rays recent "attendance issues" that the mainstream media has blown far out of proportion, in fact the attendance has raised over 4,000 on average, this coming after a 2,000 increase during the last two years. So for a team that's had its first winning season this year attendance has increased by a little more than 6,000 over the past three seasons. Let's take a look at what the Rays should expect in attendance based on winning by eyeballing a few similar examples.
Atlanta Braves Early 1990's
Before their incredible streak of division victories the Braves had a run of mediocre seasons. Starting in 1985 the Braves would win 66, 72, 69, 54, 63, and 65 games. In 1991 the Braves pulled the original Rays maneuver and suddenly won 94 games. At the time Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium acted as home to the Bobby Cox lead Braves, but prior to 1991 they were drawing numbers in the mid to low 10,000s. It's a bit unfair to compare raw attendance numbers when you're considering AFCS held over 50,000 and only two current stadiums are averaging more than 50,000 (both in New York) so instead we'll use capacity percentage as a way of showing increases.
It was the year after the breakout season that the Braves felt the benefits of an increased fan base.
Detroit Tigers Early 2000's
The Tigers opened a new stadium in 2000, signed a few star players in 2003/2004 but didn't win until 2006. After an initial hike in 2000 attendance slipped into the low 20,000s where it stood until 2006. They're projected to win 79 games this season which is a disappointment, but they still added Miguel Cabrera to their roster, another superstar, which projected hype and probably added a few people to the bandwagon. What we see yet again is the jump from year two to year three is equal or better to the jump from year one to year two.
Anaheim Angels Early 2000's
What's amazing about the Angels is their attendance rising despite an off season in 2003. Part of that was the addition of stars Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon both signed by new owner Arte Moreno, which probably counts less than a star player or new ballpark, but it's still a short term burst. Stop me if you've heard this before, but year two to year three was the big jump in tickets sold.
Milwaukee Brewers Early-Mid 2000's
Miller Park opened in 2000 but the Brewers win totals didn't show much added enthusiasm until 2005 73, 68, 56, 68, 67 before their .500 season. The Brewers to this point still don't have a signature season, yet their attendance has crept steadily since 2004 and saw its biggest jump when the Brewers finally broke the .500 barrier.
Montreal Expos Early-Mid 1990's
Sometimes the big crowds just never come. The Expos won less than 80 games only twice from 1986 through 1993 but that never brought in more than 23,000. It's a shame too, because their road uniforms would still be amongst the best in the game.
Minnesota Twins Early 2000's
While winning will usually draw it's a bit unfair for the Twins who play in a stadium with a baseball capacity of roughly 56,000. Again, only two teams are drawing that nowadays, and both are in New York. Take 16,000 of those seats away and things look a lot, lot better, which is exactly what the Twins will be doing when their new ballpark opens in 2010.
Oakland Athletics Early 2000's
Again, if you take some of the 48,000 seats away from the Coliseum of a thousand names the A's would be fairing pretty well. As it is the improvement is decent, if not equal to what they were drawing in the late 1980's.
It seems like the key to growing attendance is to prove to the locals that it's okay to commit on season tickets and that the confidence is usually gained quickly. For the Rays I would fully expect the attendance to continue rising for the next season and the season after that as long as they continue their commitment to winning. Their capacity is right around 36,000 and I don't see it as a stretch for them to get to the point of 75%+ capacity on average.
The best advice to the locals would be to spend the money you're using on Buccaneer season tickets (prices raised this off-season, again) and place that on Rays season tickets. More games for your money and a better ran organization.