A recent Qunnipiac University poll shows that 20 percent of Floridians prefer the New York Yankees as their favorite baseball team, two percent higher than one of the two franchises located within the state, the Tampa Bay Rays. This again opens up the attendance conversation for the Rays, who are ranked second-to-last in average attendance in the league this season, according to ESPN.com.
So the question shall be posed again: why can't the Rays attract fans to Tropicana Field?
The easy and possibly most important answer is location. Anyone who has spent any time in the Tampa Bay area understands the geographical relationship between Tampa and St. Petersburg, which sits about 20 minutes west of Tampa, just across the Bay. The problem is that the majority of expansion for the area is happening directly north and east of Tampa, making the trip to the Trop closer to 45 minutes. Factor in typical 7 p.m. game times with rush-hour traffic and we're looking at a one-hour drive to get to a baseball game.
One hour to drive TO a game means one hour to drive home, and for a weeknight game people aren't spending their money to be out until almost midnight for a baseball game. It's just not happening, no matter how fanatic people are about the Rays.
I can hear fans in New York and Philadelphia and Boston saying that they draw attendance in cities much larger with potentially longer trips to the park. But they all have solid public transportation infrastructure, something that does not exist between Tampa and St. Pete.
But St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster insists that the Rays honor their commitment to the city, which stands until 2027. 2027?! That's insanity. If the Rays stay there for another 15 years they may cease to even exist by the end of the contract, let alone have the cash to field a competitive team.
A bigger and more complex issue surrounding the Rays' attendance problems is the makeup of residents who live in the state of Florida, more specifically the Tampa Bay area. Having lived here for almost five years now, I've met a person or two and noticed that the majority of folks you meet are not originally from this area. In fact, they aren't even from the state or the south. Tampa Bay is made up of first or second-generation transplants whose roots are mostly in the northeast. This is why the Yankees are the most popular team in the state.
The Buccaneers struggle to sell out Raymond James stadium, but that's attributed more to their awful play of late, not a stadium that is in a prime location and where the Rays should consider relocating to. By in large, football is infinitely more popular than baseball, but the Bucs still don't sell out and that can be attributed to the mix of fans who have ended up in Florida.
Whether it's kids whose parents moved here and were raised sharing their allegiances to other teams, young professionals who have moved for education and employment reasons or a large military population in the area, the under-30 crowd predominantly does not care about the Rays, choosing only to visit the Trop when their favorite team is in town. This is why Yankee and Red Sox games draw near sellout crowds.
Big payrolls don't always equal immediate success, and small payrolls aren't automatically akin to poor records in the short term, but to put winning teams on the diamond for years in a row, a larger-than-average payroll is an absolute necessity. And for an organization that has such a great farm system, it will be a shame to see more great players come up, find success and then leave because the money simply isn't there.
Where then, will the melting pot of fans in the Bay area get their baseball fix, when something as simple as a fight to hang on to the only good thing St. Petersburg has forces an entire franchise to move elsewhere?