The Tampa Bay Rays have won the American League East for the second time in three years. The Rays won the division with the second-best record in the major leagues at 96-66, only one game behind its 2008 World Series opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies.
But for all the success of the Rays this season, its wins did not translate to ticket sales. The Rays came in 22nd out of 30 teams in home attendance, and many things have been attributed to this anomaly, but which are on the ball and which are off base?
Rays attendance has been a topic for as long as the Rays have been parked in St. Petersburg. Locally, the blame has been assigned to everything from the economy and bad fans to a transient population and poor location. This is my attempt to explain the mystery.
Is it the economy?
There’s no arguing the United States is in an economic downturn. Hillsborough County is the Ground Zero of the housing crash, making money seem especially scarce. But is it?
I once had a conversation with a ticket scalper about how he determines how much to charge—or rather, overcharge—for tickets. He told me that there are three indicators to any city he travels to judge what the local economy can bear. The three are: the average price of a steak dinner; the average price of a hotel room; and the average price of a prostitute.
He went into much greater detail, and I have no experience with hookers, but judging from the different cities I’ve stayed and dined in, compared to the prices I’ve overpaid for certain tickets, I’d say he was dead on.
With nationally renowned steak houses like Bern’s and Charley’s, Tampa boasts some of the finest steak dinners in the country. Depending on the time of year, a hotel room can range from sort-of-expensive to insanely expensive. I don’t know about the call girl angle, but I do know that Tampa has more strip clubs per square mile than any other city in America. That has to count for something.
So, is the economy that poor?
I believe the numbers are a little skewed because Tampa is a tourist destination as well as a renowned convention destination. That being said, the prices aren’t coming down anywhere as far as I can tell.
What the Tampa fan has evolved to is a mix between a transient fan and a fair-weather fan. Tampa has a high percentage of citizens who aren’t from Tampa originally. For the most part, the people seem to be pooled from New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan. These fans have a general interest in the Rays, but not enough to buy tickets unless the Rays are playing a team they root for.
Of course once the play-offs start, all bets are off, because the fair-weather fan part kicks in. Tampa Bay has home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs but, as fate would have it, was given the midday time slot (on a Wednesday and Thursday) to start its playoff run. Both games sold out instantly.
That tells me people can afford the games, since playoff games are much more expensive, and they can take off work to attend. They just don’t care enough to go.
Is it the stadium and or stadium location?
I find this to be a fairly lame excuse. In other cities, traffic sucks with or without a baseball game. A winning team or a new stadium generally will draw a crowd regardless of the traffic or the natural barrier of the bay.
Tropicana is no tourist destination when compared to its contemporaries like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, so ownership needed to get creative. To its credit, Tampa Bay has been innovative in recent years in its approach to draw fans to the stadium and ease the impact on the wallet. It offered free parking to fans who carpooled, and allowed fans to bring food into the stadium.
These two things alone were revolutionary in the professional team-fan relationship. But if fans of a team have the means to buy a ticket, and they won’t have to pay for parking or food, and they still don’t go to the game, then there are two assumptions: They aren’t really fans, or, as I alluded to earlier, they just don’t care enough to go.
How many sports/entertainment dollars are there to spread around?
The Tampa Bays Rays have to compete for sports entertainment dollars with the Tampa Bay Lightning, The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the University of South Florida Bulls. But after ten-plus years of sellouts, the Buccaneers' first two games of the 2010 season have been blacked out as per NFL rules for not selling out. Arguably, fewer season tickets for the Bucs could translate to more tickets for the Rays.
The Lightning had a poor showing in the standings last season, but still managed to fill over 78% of the seats available. This ranked 21st in the NHL, but just above the Lightning was the New Jersey Devils at 20th with a much larger metropolitan area and a far superior product on the ice. For 41 home games, the Lightning average attendance was 15,497. For 81 home games the Rays average attendance was 23,035.
One would think that, with the higher cost of Lightning games, and a team that may finish below .500 again, more dollars would be free for the Rays. Now, hockey attendance could be attributed to the fact that hockey has a nearly non-existent national television presence, and hockey fans only generally care about hockey, but they can watch the local team on television.
Hockey could probably broaden its fan base with more television exposure and more marketing. Hockey fans are generally middle to upper class white people, but that can change with the right marketing and right concentration in its base area. Baseball fans stretch across all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, which brings up a very important question:
Who exactly are the Rays marketing to?
There seems to be a stark contrast between who the Rays are advertising to and who actually lives in Hillsborough County. According to 2009 Census estimates, only 56% of Hillsborough County’s population claim to be exclusively Caucasian. That of course means that 44% of the population is considered minority.
A more telling number comes from Hillsborough County Public Schools, where only 40% of the student body is white versus 60% minority. This means that in the next 10 to 15 years the ticket buying public in this area will be a majority minority.
In order for the Rays to increase, or at the least, maintain its ticket sales, it must market to these minorities, with more than one Hispanic Day a year with the phrase “Los Rays” sprawled across its jerseys, and one Jackie Robinson day to pacify the black population.
I went back and researched the amount to money the Rays spent on advertising with the two most prominent minority-owned newspapers in the area, La Gaceta and the African-American targeted Florida Sentinel Bulletin. Over the past 10 years the Rays have spent exactly NOTHING with either paper. No ads, no ticket give-aways….nada. Same goes for the Buccaneers and Lightning.
It seems the policy is that only whites have money, and therefore only whites will be marketed to, in print at least, with the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune-owned papers. I called the Rays to inquire about its advertising dollars and where they went, and was told that the Rays' advertising budget was not available for public consumption....
...neither were their advertising dollars, if you have dark skin.
Like I said, it’s not only the Rays, it’s the Bucs and the Lightning too. With the ever-changing population of the Tampa Bay area, whether the teams like it or not, the minority population will be the buying public in the future, if it isn’t already.
The Rays need to remember that just because a name ends in “Z” it doesn’t mean that the person is an uneducated illegal, and just because someone is black, it doesn’t mean he or she is on welfare. This is an extremely diverse area where Hispanics are judges and Blacks are college presidents. The local teams need to respect that, or the dollars they get today will turn to dinero for someone else mañana.