Last week, during a two-game home series, Cubs fans seemed to have taken over Tropicana Field. Chris Archer, in fact, commented on feeling as though he were playing a road game at home.
Those two, rare, Cubs games represented an extreme of visiting fandom, but those games were hardly unique. For those of us living the Tampa Bay area and rooting for local teams, finding ourselves a minority in our own stadiums and arenas is not unusual. As Rays fans we are especially accustomed to finding a sea of Yankees or Red Sox jerseys at the Trop when those teams come to town. Because the Rays have struggled with low attendance, these lopsided baseball crowds have drawn particular notice, as Archer’s comments suggest.
But the Rays are not alone. The Tampa Bay Lightning — a team incidentally that has had on-ice success as well as strong attendance in recent years — were concerned to see choice seats for playoff games filled by fans wearing jerseys of opponents like the New York Rangers and the Chicago Black Hawks. In both 2015 and 2016, they restricted sales of tickets based on zip code (saying they would help Lightning fans living elsewhere make their online purchases) and also had a sort of dress code banning those sitting close to the ice from wearing jerseys of the visiting teams.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also taking measures this year, although unlike the Lightning their approach disadvantages their season ticket holders, not their team’s ticket sales. Ostensibly to ensure a stadium with supportive fans, they are cracking down on season ticket holders who have sold many of their tickets in past year, with some losing their season ticket plans. At the same time the Bucs are making it more difficult for current ticket holders to use secondary ticket outlets to re-sell unwanted tickets.
Tampa Bay is not the only place whose sports franchises have grappled with the issue of opposing fan attendance. I have attended games elsewhere (a Camden Yards game against the Red Sox; a Phillies home game against the Washington Nationals) where one would have had trouble distinguishing the home team. And at least two NFL teams have imposed zip code restrictions on playoff ticket purchases.
There could be legal concerns about this approach. It is hard to imagine that publicly financed sports facilities can discriminate against ticket buyers based on zip code. But no one has tested this in court, and if they did, no doubt the case would be decided long after the games in question had been played.
But Tampa Bay has a perfect storm of demographic factors that make this issue especially acute. Our population grows every year (we gained another 58,000 residents in 2016, many from the northeastern and midwestern cities where our sports rivals play, and probably all came with their Bears jerseys and Blue Jays caps tucked neatly into their U-Hauls). Many come here in middle age or after retirement, when their preferences are well set. And finding large communities of like-minded fans reduces the incentive to adopt a new team in order to fit in with the neighbors. Indeed there is even academic research suggesting that people don’t readily change team allegiance when they move; if your region is largely comprised of people from elsewhere it may be hard to generate a loyal fanbase for the local franchise.
If they are baseball fans they can feed their fandom with spring training and minor league games in Lakeland, Tampa, Dunedin, Clearwater, Bradenton and Sarasota. There are few other regions where a home team must compete with the organizational outposts of their rivals.
Adding to the many fans of visiting teams who live here, we also find those who travel here to see their teams. The Tampa-St. Pete area is a popular tourist destination, especially in winter and spring, and our sports ticket prices are sometimes significant lower than those in other facilities. It is not uncommon for fans from other areas to plan a vacation here and include a game or series where they can see their hometown team.
Given the tendency of opposing fans to make a loud impression at Tropicana Field, should the Rays take steps to limit their access to tickets and their visibility?
Of course it would not make much economic sense for the Rays to do this during the 81 game regular season. The Rays need derrieres in chairs, and it would be very bad for business to make it harder for anyone to attend a game. Although I cringe to see Jeter jerseys and Red Sox hats, I remind myself that every beer these folks drink will help the Rays extend Blake Snell or, even, dare I suggest, sign Shohei Otani.
But would this be feasible or desirable in postseason play (and yes, I am assuming there will be postseason games to worry about at some point)?
Would you support efforts by the Rays to limit access by opposing fans, at least in any postseason play? Take our poll and offer your thoughts in the comments.
Should the Rays institute policies to limit access and visibility of opposing fans?
This poll is closed
Yes, restrict ticket sales by zip code at all times
Restrict ticket sales by zip code during postseason
Impose dress code for visitors
No, no action should be taken to restrict opposing fans