“If you build it, he will come”, is the famous line from Kevin Costner’s character in the classic baseball film Field of Dreams. The message implies, that by simply building a field, or a stadium, it is enough to attract a team or fans. Perhaps in the case of many professional sports teams, the case or theory is “if you win, they will come”, referring to attendance or fans. If it were only that easy. The Tampa Bay Rays have tried it all to get fans in the park, by being terrible for a number of years and being one of the best teams in baseball for a number of years, and yet, all that show up to Tropicana Field are crickets.
The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball over the past six seasons, having made the post-season in four of those, on the back of five 90-win seasons. Over that same stretch, they had one trip to the World Series in 2008. This is a team that features two bona fide superstars in Cy Young winner David Price and All Star Third Baseman Evan Longoria, along with one of the most visible charismatic managers in the game – Joe Maddon. There are plenty of reasons to cheer for this team. So, how is this a team that has ranked last two years in a row in franchise value according to Forbes?
In 2013, the Rays averaged 18,645 fans per game in a facility that has the capacity to hold 36, 973. For arguments sake, they’re running at 50% capacity and one key word in my previous sentence holds the key to about 75% of their problems – facility. Tropicana Field was built in 1990, eight years before the Devil Rays (at the time) came to town. It was built with a non-retractable roof. Non-retractable. In the sun shine state. Sun shine state. Non-retractable. Duh. Aside from that obvious miscue, there are two bigger issues related to the stadium that hurt attendance. First, the park is NOT IN TAMPA BAY! It’s actually 25 miles away! To further compound the distance issue is that there is no reliable public transit option to get fans to and from the park. Having no transportation to a professional sports stadium is idiotic.
So, we’ve got an old, ugly stadium that is outside of the city it’s named for, and it is hard to get to it. That’s bad, but a new stadium could always be made, even though the lease they’re on, in theory has them there until 2027. So poof, we waved a magic wand and built a shiny new park – still one problem that won’t fix. Demographics. Dear residents of Florida – you are old. And actually, most of you aren’t even from Florida, and even fewer of you are Rays fans. Yes, the problem that a new stadium can’t fix is that the population base in Florida is a high percentage of transplants, often otherwise referred to as snow birds. These are Blue Jays fans, Red Sox fans, Yankees fans, and Orioles fans among others. To compound the demographic issues this is a young team with a lot of young marketing themes. The lowest ticket prices in the league can’t even get the local pensioners out to the park.
I thought a lot about this after the Montreal series and reminiscing about the trials that surrounded that move and the urge to have a team back in a city that would love and support a major league baseball team. It brought me to the ‘Tampa Bay Problem’ and whether or not the Rays could be saved, or if they should be moved. At the end of the day, it’s a business decision, not an attendance decision and by all reports, owner Stuart Sternberg is not losing money even though there are conflicting reports on their bottom line.
I don’t think we can fix the problem here in Florida. The Miami Marlins have struggled for many years as well. I think the on field product is great and that will remain the same regardless of where they play. I think as baseball fans in general we can be frustrated that no one is watching them in person, but all we can do is that, be frustrated, because until anything dramatic happens, the Rays will remain winning and losing (but mostly winning) baseball games with no one watching in Tampa, or wait, I mean, down the road in St. Petersburg.
Get at me with your solutions to the “Tampa Bay Problem” on Twitter: @simplemanbrook
Photo Credit: ibtimes.com