Cloudy Skies: Is Tampa Bay Losing The Rays?

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Cloudy Skies: Is Tampa Bay Losing The Rays?
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After struggling at the gate for the majority of the their existence, the Tampa Bay Rays may be looking to head elsewhere, at least that's what a report from MLB.com's Peter Gammons would have you believe.

Gammons reports that times have been so tough at Tropicana Field, "There are smart people in the Major League Baseball offices wondering if there's hope of even discussing a potential move of the Rays to New Jersey or Southern Connecticut over certain protests from the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, and Phillies."

While the Gammons article was an ivory tower indictment of baseball in Florida without digging in the reasons why it has failed here, there are facts that cannot be refuted.

Before 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays were ranked at the bottom or near bottom of attendance in Major League baseball every year since 2000. After winning the AL pennant, the Rays only gained an average of 6,000 more fannies in seats per game, still ranking in the bottom half of Major League Baseball.

The thinking of the muckademucks in the Northeast is, "If they can't pack it in after a trip to the World Series, they'll never succeed down there."

Even an Orlando politician, Armando Gutierrez, is making googly eyes at the Rays for the pipe dream of baseball in Orlando.

Orlando's not getting a baseball team, and surely not the Rays. Why would the Rays move to a lesser market—especially one that's struggling to support the one franchise that is in the area, the Magic?

How did it get to this? Why is the Tampa Bay fan base so apathetic to the Rays?

As John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times wrote recently, it's not a Rays problem but an area-wide epidemic. Empty seats were plentiful at Raymond James Stadium for Bucs games for a team that once had a 100,000-person waiting list for season tickets. The Lightning are having to borrow money from the NHL just to make payroll and their attendance has dropped from one of the best in the league to one of the worst.

The economic downturn hit Tampa Bay hard; there are fewer jobs, less disposable income, and many distractions here in the bay area.

Still, other communities were hit just as hard and still manage to support their franchises.

The Rays' issues run a bit deeper.

First, there's Tropicana Field. Major League Baseball wanted to put a team in the fertile Tampa Bay market. They wanted it in Tampa. However, the city commissioners in St. Petersburg wanted their own presence and to step out of the shadow of Tampa. They believed a baseball stadium would revitalize the surrounding area.

Major League Baseball told the city, "Do not build the stadium or you could ruin the area's chances for a team."

The city ignored MLB's urging and pushed forward with the Florida Suncoast Dome, later the Thunderdome, and finally Tropicana Field. The city of Tampa abandoned their attempt to get a team and the stadium became the biggest bargaining chip for any franchise looking for a new stadium in their own community.

There were the White Sox, the Mariners, then the Twins (twice), and finally expansion. Each time, the teams got what they wanted and Tampa Bay was used. When expansion came, teams went to Denver and Miami instead of St. Petersburg—the ultimate slap in the face.

Finally in 1992, when Vince Namoli purchased the San Francisco Giants, it looked like St. Petersburg had made the right call. The city celebrated at finally realizing the Major League Baseball dream, only to watch helplessly as the owners voted down Namoli's approval for ownership, blocking the move.

For many baseball fans in the Tampa Bay area, that was the final straw.

Six long years later, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were born and for the first couple of years, the Rays drew well.

Unfortunately, owner Vince Namoli nearly poisoned the area for baseball. Namoli alienated sponsors and fans alike, demanding support instead of working toward it. He would have ushers work like gestapo, making trips to the ballpark an imposing, uncomfortable experience.

When fans complained about the poor location of the Trop, he angrily fired back, saying that people drive hours to go to games in New York and Boston.

For over a decade, Namoli's teams were among the worst in baseball, continuing to jade the community. During the same time period, the Buccaneers rose from mediocrity to a playoff contender and interest in the Devil Rays hit an all-time low.

While Namoli will always be remembered as the man who brought baseball to Tampa Bay, he is also the man who nearly destroyed it.

When Stu Sternberg took over the baseball club, he had no idea how much damage had been done in the community.

Sternberg also quickly realized that the majority of his fanbase was far away from the location of the stadium. Most of the residents have to drive nearly an hour to get to a game and forget about communities East of Tampa, like the Orlando market.

Baseball had always wanted the stadium in Tampa, in the heart of the population base, and in the end were proved right.

Still, MLB is not absent of fault.

Spring training is a tradition here in Florida. Teams come south to train in the warm Florida sun and get ready for the upcoming season. The only problem is that with spring training, there's no reason for residents in the bay area to re-align their allegiances to the community they live in.

Tampa Bay is a transient community, with the majority of its residents coming from the Northeast or the Midwest. These folks are born with allegiances to the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox, and Cubs.

With the Braves, Orioles, Tigers, Astros, Pirates, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Twins, and Nationals joining the Red Sox, Mets, Phillies, and Yankees, even residents born in Tampa Bay grew up as fans of other teams.

How can the Rays build a fan base when the Yankees have a gorgeous new training facility and stadium in Tampa, the heart of their territory?

When division rival Toronto trains in Dunedin? When the hated Red Sox are in Ft. Myers?

What incentive do the fans have to disregard their old teams and go with the Rays when they can still see their favorite ballclub every spring and throughout the season?

Spring training is killing the baseball franchises in Florida.

Look at the Marlins, who have a competitive team and two World Championships on their resume, and they still are at the bottom of the Majors in attendance.

For the Tampa Bay Rays, a new stadium in Tampa would likely significantly boost attendance, especially if the team remains competitive, giving them access to a significant population point.

That's important, as the Rays are drawing from a smaller demographic than their division rivals.

Fenway Park is always sold out. It helps that in the combined statistical Boston area, the Red Sox have 7.5 million people to draw from.

The Yankees have more than 8 million.

Tampa Bay, not including Orlando, has 2.7 million. In St. Petersburg, there's only 249,000.

Many in that 2.7 million could care less about baseball, while the others have allegiances to other teams, leaving you with 14,000 dedicated fans who love the team unconditionally.

It's hard to sustain that.

If MLB truly cares about the teams in Florida, they'll stop training in Central and South Florida, they'll assist the Rays in finding a Tampa-based solution, and continue work on the competitive balance so one team isn't spending $300 million on payroll while another is struggling with a $50 million dollar payroll.

Only then will baseball succeed in Tampa Bay and Miami.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to happen. Even if the Rays get that sparkling new mecca in the heart of Tampa (or Yankee Country, as it were), it may not be enough to pull fans on a nightly basis.

It's not a fault of the community or a lack of interest in baseball in the area, it's a failure in community leaders, team ownership, and baseball leaders for not understanding the demographics of the region.

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