I really don't want to do this, but it deserves a mention, because this is getting crazy. I'm unfortunately talking about attendance.
Whenever the Rays find any spotlight, it seems to be an opportunity for the national media to harp on the poor attendance in Tampa Bay. The Rays are not the only team who struggle in this regard, but they do so famously. The team plays in a hollowed-out hockey rink forever-and-away from the population base. I don't know what people expected attendance to be, but the results are hardly improving.
The Rays try many things to improve their attendance. Like other teams, they host concerts and plan constant giveaways to the fans, parking is occasionally free, and you can bring your own food into the stadium. If you don't, the food options on the right field concourse are actually quite decent, and the team is sinking more and more money into the failed venture of a stadium all the time, most recently adding a 360-degree walkway and a bar in center field. The colors and lights are brighter, the team is constantly competitive.
So why are things getting worse?
With the help of savvy scheduling, the Rays are hosting the Yankees mid-week, and normally that's a strong draw, but it's supposedly a doubly-strong draw with A-Rod in the house and the Yankees leading the division. The Tampa Bay community is saturated with Yankees fans of old, so the numbers were anticipated to be decent this week. Instead, the opposite has happened:
- Attendance was at it's lowest ever in franchise history for a Yankees game on Tuesday night, at 10,619.
- Then last night, the attendance was announced at 10,417 for the new all-time low featuring New York.
Of course, last night's number was surely compounded by the Tampa Bay Lightning hosting Montreal and winning their division in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the number is still rather close to Tuesday's figure when the hockey team was travelling. Unless fan interests intersect directly with the NBA playoffs, of which the closest team playing is 500 miles away, then there's not a good excuse.
With consecutive worst-ever's behind us, how tonight's attendance pans out should be even more telling.
Tonight is the annual Top Of The Trop event, a fan-driven effort to have one strong weekday attendance game per year, which gets decent media coverage from the local affiliates. This year, WTSP of CBS is doing their part by bringing 100 fans along for the event.
I sincerely hope the effort is successful, because the franchise is yet again at risk for rather negative press coverage regarding the stadium situation.
Issues with the stadium location have been well documented, the site for Tropicana Field is within a 30-minute drive for only 20% of the Tampa Bay population base, and the Rays are strong draws for the television market. It makes sense that attendance figures would be low, particularly if you look at a map.
St. Petersburg is the location of the Rays stadium, nestled in the lower region of Pinellas County. That area of Tampa Bay has just shy of one million residents, of which 75% live in the region between Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. The home of the Rays is hardly a city at ~250k people, which is why they are the Tampa Bay Rays.
For more clarity, if you're new to the conversation, imagine Tampa Bay being a clock face with that giant lobster-shaped body of water in the center.
Now imagine 78% of that population lives between 10 o'clock and 4 o'clock on the dial, starting from Clearwater and sweeping all the way around to Bartow on the map. Then consider another 17% of the population lives between 5 'clock and 6 o'clock.
If the expectation is for 95% of the population to travel to 7 o'clock on the dial on a week-night for a three-hour game with the family, you're not going to fill the stadium. There are more nuanced approaches to the conversation, but it really is as simple as that.
The city of St. Petersburg has only the 78th largest population in the country, four notches above the home of the Rays' Triple-A affiliate in Durham, NC. Low attendance numbers are not surprising. What should remain surprising is the city's adamant insistence that things will get better.
Tropicana Field's lease is iron-clad from a legal perspective, and traps the Rays in the poorly-located stadium until 2027 without permission to even consider building a new stadium outside the city limits until lease expires. Building a new stadium could take 5-7 years, but given the language in the agreement, the Rays couldn't entertain the thought of a new location for another 12 years.
The Rays were close to finding common ground with the City Council on an approximately $32M buyout from the lease that allowed the team to search for a new stadium site within Tampa Bay, but what amounted to a disagreement over a few thousand dollars scuttled the deal.
When the Rays sought to bring it back to a vote, with concessions made for that few thousand dollars, the City Council denied reconsideration.
The Rays had made such progress, but are back to a standstill.
Team owner Stuart Sternberg has been adamant that he has no intention of moving the team and only wants to make things work in Tampa Bay, but he has also stated that he is likely to sell the team without a new stadium in a more profitable location, and a new owner would likely move the Rays out of Tampa Bay.
The Rays are likely to become more profitable in the near future, as the team will be negotiating a new television contract for the 2017 season, but with dwindling attendance and no stadium on the horizon, their position to negotiate may not be as strong as it could be. This only adds to the likelihood of a sale.
Poor attendance can easily be blamed on the location in St. Petersburg, and if the Rays leave the region altogether, the blame will belong with the city for not allowing a wider search.
Population numbers derived from 2015 Nielsen Estimates. Image source: tampabay.org.