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Opinion: Attendance has been terrible and that’s OK

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When Tampa Bay is no longer a COVID hotspot, I’ll go back to worrying about attendance

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Rays’ attendance has been awful this year.

Of course, Rays’ attendance has never been great; after averaging over 23,000 fans per game in 2010, the team drew just over 14,000 a game in 2018-2019.

Well, this year that average, thus far, is a mere 8,333. While attendance was intentionally limited early in the season, the stadium has been at full capacity for months, and yet we routinely see only 5-6,000 fans on weeknights.

I love a full stadium as much as any fan, and ideally, I want our exciting, playoff-bound players to hear a roaring crowd. Ideally, I want to be part of that roaring crowd should we (knock on wood) have games to watch in late October.

Read More: Rays odds for a playoff spot continue to improve

But, friends, we are still in a pandemic, and it seems pretty reasonable to me that some groups of fans choose not to attend in person. This is not the moment to shame those who are staying home, or exhort people to attend games.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

First, let’s review the public health situation in Florida and the Tampa Bay area specifically. (Apologies ahead of time for those of you with COVID fatigue, you can skip these paragraphs.)

Florida leads the nation in cases and hospitalizations per 100,000 population. The Tampa Bay area has been among Florida’s most affected areas; according to last week’s reports, positivity rates (e.g. percentage of those tested who test positive, considered a sign of community spread) are 18% in Hillsborough County and 19% in Pinellas; the CDC thinks that anything over 5% represents dangerous community spread.

Hospitals in both counties have unsustainably high occupancy rates and over-capacity emergency rooms. While those who are vaccinated have some protection, the Delta variant has led to far more breakthrough cases than expected. On the bright side, new case numbers and new hospitalizations have started to plateau, so we can be hopeful that in another month or two our region will not be bright red on every map of worldwide COVID hotspots.

But those better days are in the future; let’s talk about the potential risks of attending a game at Tropicana Field right now.

The Rays earlier assured us that although the stadium is indoors, the quality of the ventilation under the dome is very high. I trust them on this, and would note how few Rays players and staff, who are there all the time, have developed COVID. Since Delta led to increased infection rates, the Rays have required all staff to be masked. This is all good.

But there is no vaccination mandate, and there is no mask mandate (this is consistent with state policy, I’m not complaining just noting). There are no remaining efforts to distance fans, either in their seats or on the concourses.

My impression from attending games is that maybe one in ten to fifteen fans is masked at all, and even those remove their masks to eat and drink. When I attend a game and sit in my favorite press level section there are four or five unmasked strangers sitting within six feet of me for a good three hours (When possible I move to an emptier section, but if exhortations to fill up the Trop succeed, of course, those empty sections would disappear).

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Some of us are quite willing to accept those risks. But many — those who are older, have health vulnerabilities, have unvaccinated children — would find these risks unacceptable. It makes sense that some portion of potential ticket buyers would opt out.

Press covering the Rays like to underline the low attendance in contrast to the on-field success of the team. I would remind our Rays media that fans face a very different set of risks and rewards than they do.

Glancing into the press box at a recent game I noticed that everyone in there was masked and the members of the press were spread out across the press box; no one was sitting right next to another reporter. It is quite different to be a fan, where you are in close quarters with many unmasked people.

Also, many of us accept risks as part of our “day jobs.” My work has no mask or vaccine requirements and puts me in contact with other people and I accept those (fortunately small) risks as part of the deal for getting a paycheck. But the calculus is different when I make choices about how to spend my free time.

Like anyone who follows the Rays, I understand that poor attendance is an endemic problem, unrelated to COVID. We’ve seen many analyses of why even competitive Rays teams have been last in the league in attendance. Stadium location; ticket (and parking) prices; the charms or lack thereof of the Trop; the size and spending power of the region; an owner with a foot out the door; a region full of fans of other teams who only show up to root for the visitors: these are all part of the mix.

These factors explain why the Rays want to leave Tropicana Field and possibly St. Pete. These factors explain why the Rays, even exciting and competitive Rays teams, generally average 15,000 a game.

But as for why the Rays average 8,000 in 2021? That’s a reasonable response to a scary public health crisis.