Tampa Bay Sports: A Question of Allegiance

Eli MargerCorrespondent IJune 4, 2011

Perhaps the most triumphant sporting event to ever occur in the Tampa Bay area was game one of the 2008 World Series. The favored Philadelphia Phillies were in town to begin a series against the surprisingly elite Tampa Bay Rays. It was a media circus unlike anything the area had seen outside of several Super Bowls that had been hosted.

Yet something was amiss at this great event. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the pregame festivities, and all the buzz in the crowd, something just wasn't right.

The crowd had too much red. The Phillies fans had invaded.

Much has been made about attendance issues for Tampa Bay teams. In their most recent season, the Buccaneers of the NFL failed to sell out a game, resulting in local television blackouts. The Lightning of the NHL, who made it as far as the Conference Finals this year, ranked 21st in terms of percentage of seats filled.

And then there are the Rays, who have seemingly become a punching bag for national media outlets regarding attendance. The Rays have been in contention in baseball's best division for what will be four straight years now, yet the great focus in regard to the franchise centers around attendance.

As a passionate fan of all three teams, but also a generally unbiased writer, I've always wondered if there was an underlying reason for attendance problems. The Rays' problem was addressed in one of my articles. But this article won't be about attendance. Not exactly.

I've always wondered about why it is that when the big-time teams come into town, there are so many fans of them. Why do Red Sox and Yankees fans dominate Tropicana Field during a series? Why do Steelers fans dominate Raymond James Stadium? Why were there so many Bruins fans at the St. Pete Times Forum?

This is an answer that goes beyond sports, really. It's about fan psychology but more so about regional demographics. For those of you unfamiliar with the Tampa Bay area, this should be an interesting read. For those of you who live there or have been there, this should make sense.

Much like the rest of Florida, the Tampa Bay area is full of migrants from the northern states. In the 2007 Annual Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, Florida was tied with California and Texas for the largest attractor of moving Americans. This should not surprise anyone. My grandparents are all from out of state, and my mother is from Ohio.

The largest metro area in Florida, and the one that attracts the most migrants, is the Miami area. But coming in second, with approximately 70,000 new residents per year, is the Tampa Bay area. So what does this have to do with sports?

Well, let's dig a little deeper. According to that same Census Bureau report, the states that came most to Florida were Alaska, Georgia, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York. Now, my point starts to become more clear.

Let's brainstorm the list of prominent sports teams from the six states listed above. There's the Yankees, the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, Red Wings, and the list goes on. Now, the data were not broken down into demographics, that is, it couldn't be determined what age groups moved most.

But if trends still exist, many of these migrants are retirees. The others are, in all likelihood, young families moving for work-related reasons. The cost of living in Florida is fairly high compared to anywhere else in the country, so it is no surprise that these new residents are, in general, fairly wealthy.

Now, it is time to present the hypothesis. The question has already been presented about why it is that out-of-town teams draw so well in Tampa Bay. My best guess as to the reason is this: some fans wear two faces. They root for the Bay Area teams most of the year, but when the Yankees, Red Sox, etc., come to town, they root for their hometown teams.

This is not a travesty by any means. It's not an unforgivable sin. If I moved from St. Petersburg to another city, I'd root for the Rays when they came to town. That isn't an issue.

The issue is how the Tampa Bay fan bases stack up in terms of allegiance to their local teams. It's very hard to find data on this. It's not like stadiums record what colors fans are wearing as they enter. Even if they did, it would be a very inexact science.

So here's an arbitrary attempt to quantify this problem in Tampa Bay. Let's look at the Rays first. In 2010, the Rays averaged 22,758 fans, or 52 percent of Tropicana Field's capacity. Of course, a weekday afternoon game against the Royals will not draw the same as a Friday night game against the Red Sox.

On July 30th, 2010, the Rays played the New York Yankees. It was a Friday night. The Rays were trailing the Yankees in the AL East by two games. Alex Rodriguez was still stuck at 599 home runs. It was a game won by Tampa Bay, 3-2. The attendance that night was a healthy 36,973, a sellout. 

Now, on the surface it seems like a game that should automatically sell out. The game drew 14,000 more fans than average. Okay, let's fast forward.

September 28th of the same season. It's a Tuesday night game against Baltimore, but there are extraordinary circumstances. With a win, the Rays would clinch a playoff birth. David Price, the team's ace, was on the mound. The attendance? 17,891.

If you are any type of sports fan at all, you will understand the reason I question this disparity. A game with playoff implications should automatically equal a sellout. So now, let me change sports.

It's September 26th, 2010, two days before the Rays would clinch a playoff spot. Across the bay, the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing their third game of the young NFL season. The opponent was the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a hot, muggy afternoon game. The attendance was 61,036, not a sellout but the most highly-attended game of the season at Raymond James Stadium.

Again, we fast forward. It's December 26th, an afternoon home game against Seattle. Kickoff temperature is 49 degrees, but the Bucs are 8-6, very much alive in the NFC playoff race. A win against the Seahawks sets up a must-win the following week in New Orleans.

46,576 fans showed up, nearly 15,000 less than for an almost meaningless game against the Steelers.

So what's the point?

Tampa Bay sports fans, you should be absolutely ashamed. You should walk around with bags on your heads. I'm all of 20 years old, have barely any assets to my name, come from a middle-class family, and I still manage to get to 20 Rays games, one Bucs game, and one Lightning game per year. Don't blame the economy. Don't blame the distances.

Of the 4,200,000 people of this region, why can only 0.5 percent get to a Rays game every night? Why can only 1.1 percent go to one of the eight Bucs games per year?

It is aggravating and embarrassing to go watch the Rays play a division rival and see half the crowd wearing Boston red or New York navy. It is disheartening to hear the roar of Steelers fans during a rout of the Bucs. And it was nearly heartbreaking to hear the Bruins fans going wild after a goal in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Listen, Floridians. We love our state, right? There's a reason so many people migrate to Florida every year. But let's not be a laughingstock. Let's not be "those fans", the ones who only care about a team once in a blue moon.

If you are a Tampa Bay resident reading this and you grew up in New York or Boston or Philadelphia, I urge you to continue supporting our sports teams with your money. Without the Yankees or Red Sox, the Rays probably would have been moved by now because there would be no sellouts.

But for you Florida natives, the ones who buy David Price shirts in September once you hear a colleague saying the Rays might make the playoffs, step it up. The country is laughing in our face.

So from now on, let's show some pride, let's show some passion, and let's root, root, root for the home team.