This recent Wild Card series was the least fun I’ve had watching baseball in quite a long time.
To add insult to injury, the conversation around our suddenly-inept team was essentially overshadowed by the conversation we Rays fans always dread having.
Here's some perspective on today's attendance of 19,704 at the Trop: according to @Stathead, it's the lowest (non-Covid year) attendance for a postseason game in 104 years. Last one below 19,704 was Game 7 of the infamous 1919 World Series in Cincinnati.— Tyler Kepner (@TylerKepner) October 3, 2023
The year 1919 had many things working against it, including the Black Sox scandal and the difficulty of selling physical, single game tickets day-of (when tickets used to be sold in 3-game packs). It’s telling that it took until 2023 for attendance to ever dip this low again. The local paper reported the actual attendance of that game was below 14,000 fans.
The circumstances that led to the Rays poor attendance in the playoffs are markedly different.
Before we get into it, let me make my personal position clear: I wish we’d had full houses on both days.
I’ve been to a sold-out playoff game at Tropicana Field and it’s an electric atmosphere (especially if there is something on the field to cheer about). Perhaps if the team had fewer injuries, or finished in first place, there would have been more people determined to see games in person. But I think there are other reasons at play.
It’s no mystery why the Wild Card games had empty seats
We long knew the Wild Card game would be on Tuesday and Wednesday, but we did not know until Sunday evening that both games would start at 3:10pm. To be clear, the Rays did not choose this time. These are decisions made by MLB leadership.
That gave folks 36-48 hours to rearrange their lives — get off from work; arrange for school pickups. To be sure there are people for whom that is not a big deal. Retirees, workers with flexible schedules and no elementary school aged children can hold those days open and work around the game, whatever time it starts.
But that eliminates a lot of Rays fans!
Then, of course, there is the price. MLB sets postseason ticket prices. I also believe (and please correct me, readers, if you know otherwise) that these Wild Card series prices are pretty consistent across venues, so tickets in Philadelphia were priced comparably to those in St. Pete. For us, this means that ticket prices were about twice as high as for regular season games, making them expensive for many people who might like to attend.
If MLB is a business, why is it pushing away its customers?
Would any other entertainment business put on an event without considering the local market when setting the start time or the ticket prices?
Let’s say a popular music performer were to announce on Sunday night that they would be holding a concert at 3pm on Tuesday, with tickets more expensive than what we generally pay in our area. If that concert didn’t sell out, would we bash that singer’s fans, or would we wonder why the heck the concert producers had set things up so poorly?
MLB has its own postseason priorities. They want to maximize TV viewership, which means ensuring that what they consider to be their top drawing matchup is shown in TV prime time. Almost across Tampa Bay playoff history, our team has gotten the most inconvenient time slot (unless we are saved by playing the Yankees or Red Sox).
The baseball business brain trust has, in essence, said to fans: we don’t care if you can’t attend. But then when there are empty seats, it’s local residents who are blasted for their lack of commitment.
Other teams, I’ve been told, DO sell out 3pm games announced at the last minute. Milwaukee and Minnesota, neither “big market” teams, seemed to have full stadiums. That’s great, but we are not other markets.
We’ve written before, and I’m sure you’ve read before, all the reasons that our Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area is unlikely to be a high attendance area. Our population is smaller and (by median household income) poorer than almost every other major league metro area. We have a ton of transplants who remain loyal to their hometown teams. No doubt those empty seats would have been full if we’d played Toronto or Philadelphia, let alone New York or Boston.
And our stadium is not located in a place that makes it easy to attend. Our region is sprawling, which means a very small percentage of our population lives within a thirty minute drive of the stadium. The stadium is also located far from major employment centers, which are are Westshore, Downtown Tampa, the University and Gateway areas. Add in a dearth of mass transit and you can see that our region is poorly positioned to facilitate large attendance numbers at that time in that location.
I have read posts and articles saying these barriers are just “excuses” as though attending games were a civic or religious duty that we are shirking. How fortuitous for major league team owners that we have created a narrative in which we blame customers who are choosing not to spend their dollars to support a private business that isn’t delivering a product that they can easily access! In what other business are customers expected to shoulder large burdens for the privilege of spending their discretionary dollars?
But wait, haven’t the Rays just decided to stay in St. Pete, which we’ve just described as difficult to get to?
They have, and in making that choice they have made clear that maximizing potential attendance is not their priority, either. Presumably they saw the development opportunities and availability of subsidies at their current location appealing enough to offset the disadvantages of a more peripheral (from those population and employment centers) site.
The Rays could build in Tampa, and draw a few thousand more people each game, but be on their own to find land, influence surrounding development, and raise most of the $1B needed for the stadium. Or they could stay in St. Pete, get a lot of development benefits and subsidies, but settle for lower attendance. Guess which one they chose.
No doubt they also hope that the development surrounding that new stadium could change the equation. They will be spearheading a project that includes offices, restaurants, and over 6000 apartments. In say 2032 there will be a lot more people working and living there who can pop in for a 3pm game. And who knows, perhaps pigs will fly and we’ll have more robust transit that can make a trip across the Bay more feasible for those in downtown Tampa or Westshore.
By every projection, however, most population and job growth will happen on the other side of the bay. The St. Petersburg site, even with the anticipated new development, will never be close to the majority of the region’s population or employment.
To recap: The Rays have chosen to remain in a location that is a trek for the majority of the region’s residents and employees. They will reap benefits for building there, but they have opted not to choose a location that will boost attendance dramatically. MLB has chosen, and will always choose, to feature big market teams in prime TV slots. Tampa Bay will always play postseason games at awkward times.
Thanks to these decisions, we may continue to see weekday playoff games with 20,000 in attendance, at least in Tampa Bay. And then, predictably, we will get a week of the baseball world disparaging us because we didn’t overcome the barriers of expense and inconvenience to attend a baseball game.
The Rays have good reasons for staying in St. Pete. MLB has good reasons for shunting our games to weekday afternoons. But with those choices having been made, can we stop yelling at Rays fans for also making the reasonable choice not to attend in person?