Photo: Chris O’Meara (AP)
It’s not like everyone hadn’t been thinking it, but it took Tommy Pham to mention the elephant in the room. The outfielder, who one year earlier had celebrated his 6-WAR season in his first year as a starter at age 29 by publicly tearing down Cardinals management for not calling him up sooner, was sent to the Rays in a baffling trade then promptly ingratiated himself with his new fans by telling them just how much they suck.
“It sucks going from playing in front of a great fan base to a team with really no fan base at all,” said Pham in a radio interview in December while playing winter ball. “Even here in the Dominican they have a strong fan base for the team I’m playing for. Their fans are very supportive, they’re loud. And the Rays? They just don’t have that.”
Pham’s statement would have raised eyebrows in any winter, but this has been an especially ominous one for the Rays. Last season, the team surged to win 90 games despite dealing off Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, and team icon Evan Longoria, only to see attendance plummet to a feeble 1,154,973. In December, team owner Stuart Sternberg announced that he was throwing in the towel on talks for a new stadium across the bay in Tampa—mostly because he didn’t want to pay for one, and it turned out nobody else did either—immediately sparking excitement in places like Montreal that the team could soon relocate there. Last month, the team announced it would be closing off its upper deck this season, apparently on the theory that you can sell more tickets by playing hard to get. And then just last week, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declared that Sternberg would be focusing on a new stadium in their current home of St. Petersburg, with an implicit “or else” that the team could move once its lease is up in 2027 if no new building was forthcoming.
It’s been a bad winter for Rays fans, in other words, on top of a lot of bad winters. And the most troubling aspect is the one that Pham singled out: the continually disappointing ticket sales. Since the then–Devil Rays arrived on the scene in 1998, bringing big-league ball to the United States’ 11th biggest media market after years of teams playing footsie with it in order to extract new stadiums from their own hometowns, fans have, as the saying goes, mostly turned out disguised as empty seats. Tampa Bay has cleared two million in attendance exactly once, the team’s inaugural season, when 2,506,293 fans turned out to watch the Devil Rays lose 99 games. The high-water attendance mark since then: 1,874,962 in 2009, when the Rays were fresh off a World Series appearance.
Twenty-one seasons in, it’s fair enough to say that this is a trend. But a trend that means what? Theories seemingly outnumber Rays fans, so I set out to beat on them with sticks (the theories, not the fans) to see which ones stand up to factual scrutiny—with the help of some locals who’ve watched for two decades as the fanny-free seats have piled up like cordwood.
Theory No. 1: The Trop sucks
When the Tropicana Dome—then the Florida Suncoast Dome, naming rights not yet having been sold—opened in 1990, the Chicago Tribune described it as “nice enough” and as looking like “a flying saucer that landed funny and blew a tire.” Those may be the kindest things anyone has ever said about the Rays’ home stadium.
Longtime Tampa TV reporter (and former Rays stadium saga blogger) Noah Pransky stops short of joining the “just blow it up” crowd, but says it’s still a liability for a team struggling to build a fan base. “I think they would add a whole new degree of cool to their product simply by building a new stadium, wherever it may be,” says Pransky. “We all know the new stadium smell provides a shot in the arm, at least for a few years.”
That was certainly true in the 1990s, when the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians saw years of sellouts in the wake of opening new home parks. But more recently, the stadium effect seems to have waned: Of the last three teams to open new homes, the Twins are drawing fewer fans than they did in the last years of the Metrodome, the Marlins’ honeymoon period barely lasted one season, and while the Braves have seen attendance rise by about 25 percent upon moving to Cobb County, that’s only compared to the last two years in Atlanta, when they lost 90-plus games each year and had their worst attendance since 1990.
A new stadium alone probably wouldn’t hurt the Rays, then, but it also might not help much. Especially if the problem is really…
Theory No. 2: St. Petersburg sucks
The biggest complaint about the Trop remains not the sloping roof (reportedly designed that way to cut down on the amount of interior volume that would have to be air-conditioned) or the overhanging catwalks that turn occasional popups into home runs to nowhere, but rather the location. The Tampa Bay region is, as the name may have tipped you off, built around a body of water, and the Trop is on the side that is a peninsula largely cut off from the mainland, with only a pair of bridges to connect them to the main population centers.
This, says Josh Frank, a St. Petersburg urban designer and rare born-and-raised Rays fan, is the team’s true and lasting curse. “If you drew a 30-minute drive time circle around the stadium, three-fifths of it is going to be water,” he says.
Here courtesy of Google Street View, is the view when setting out from Tampa en route to a Rays game:
Ask a Tampa Bay resident about going to Rays games, and the first thing you’re likely to hear is a rant about the bridges. “The bridges are only a couple of miles long, but they may as well be 20 miles long, the way people talk about them,” says Jason Collette, a longtime Rays sportswriter and fan who recently relocated to North Carolina. “When I lived in Florida, I lived on the east side of Orlando, and it took me two hours from my driveway to the Tropicana Field parking lot — and that’s if I hit no traffic at all.” (Fact check: Orlando is 100 miles away from St. Petersburg, so this particular factoid may have less to do with bridges than with trying to build a fan base in a city that’s as far away as Philadelphia is from New York.)
There is some support for the wrong-side-of-the-bay theory in another statistic: Rays TV ratings are not nearly as bad as their attendance figures, and on par with the larger-market Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a team with a decent number of fans, but very few wanting to sit in traffic for two hours to get to the ballpark when there’s a sofa waiting right there for you to imprint your butt on it.
Still, baseball features lots of other stadiums in lousy locations: The Phillies and Mets play in the middle of desolate parking lots nowhere near stores or other amenities, and the Braves just moved to a stadium seemingly designed for traffic jams in one of the nation’s most traffic-plagued cities. So maybe there’s something else at work in Tampa Bay as well?
Theory No. 3: The whole region sucks
Even if you put the Rays in a stadium on the Tampa side of the bay, you’d still have the problem of the bay and the traffic-choked bridges — albeit now they would be a problem for those on the St. Pete side. And traffic is unavoidable in the area, which ranked a tidy 124th for mass-transit trips per capita in a 2014 FiveThirtyEight study—ahead of only Detroit and Kansas City among MLB cities.
“Our area is on par with a city like Sheboygan for mass transit,” says Frank. (Fact-check: Sheboygan was all the way down at 176th. Sheboygan is not ever getting an MLB team.) “There’s no viable way to get to the Trop from Tampa—and there’s no viable way to get to the Trop from St. Pete Beach, aside from driving.”
There is one huge counterargument here, and it is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have sold out every home game since 2015 despite all of the region’s traffic and transit issues. It helps that they only have 41 home dates, and that their arena is on the Tampa side of the bay, but still, Lightning games are a loud data point against the entire metro area being death to sports teams.
It is possible, though, that Tampa Bay has too many teams to support all at once.
“I don’t know of a lot of cities where college football is the number one sport, and the city is also supporting three teams well—certainly not a lot the size of Tampa Bay,” says Pransky. “You’re just stretching the dollar and the attention span thin.”
Frank agrees: “Our area financially doesn’t have the same level of expendable income that others do.” (Tampa Bay ranks 65th among U.S. urban areas in per capita income, well below such cities as Cleveland and Detroit.) “You basically have to pick between season tickets for the Bucs, the Lightning, or the Rays, and it shifts constantly.”
Theory No. 4: Stuart Sternberg sucks
If it’s tough being a baseball fan in the age of perpetual salary dumps and rebuilding plans, it’s doubly tough to be a Rays fan, where the only constant is that the names on the back of the jerseys will become unrecognizable within a season or two. This year’s Rays team will feature precisely one player who was on the 2015 roster, and that’s only until they inevitably choose to ship Kevin Kiermaier out of town when his salary hits eight digits.
And while other teams have survived waves of salary dumps, their fans didn’t have the team owner himself telling them not to come to the stadium because it was such a dump.
“The Rays have spent 10 years talking about how awful it is to go to their games,” says Pransky. “The Lightning, on the other hand, spent years talking about how cool it is, and fostering a really cool atmosphere.” He cites one particularly damning anecdote: Social media is awash in selfies from NHL games, but “nobody wants to show off to their friends that they’re at a Rays game.”
Collette also points to another, less Machiavellian Sternberg innovation: dynamic pricing, wherein tickets cost more for games against the Yankees and Red Sox, on the theory that visiting fans from New York and Boston—or former Northeasterners who relocated to Florida with their allegiances intact—will pay a premium to see their favorite teams.
It’s a strategy that’s worked, says Collette, but maybe all too well. “I know a number of people that choose not to go to Yankees and Red Sox games because they don’t want to deal with the inflated pricing, they don’t want to deal with the visiting crowd,” he says.
Theory No. 5: Florida sucks
One of the better predictors of baseball attendance is market size: Teams that play in bigger cities draw more fans (duh). This is how the Yankees were able to draw 2 million fans to see Kevin Maas and Alvaro Espinoza, and the Dodgers are stuck on 3 million regardless of how many games they win or lose.
Demographics is not destiny, however, and this graph shows that there are outliers in the population-vs.-ticket sales scatter plot:
The chart maps market size (measured in TV households) left to right, and average attendance 2014-2018 bottom to top. The dot the furthest below the trend line, it should come as no surprise by now, is Tampa Bay. The one just above it, though, is their cross-state neighbors, the Miami Marlins.
The Marlins are historically hapless, yes, but they also have a new taxpayer-soaking stadium and a couple of World Series championship flags. It seems like it can’t be a coincidence that they and the Rays are the two teams that seemingly can’t draw flies.
“I think a large part of it is Florida is the spring training home to 15 major league baseball teams,” says Pransky. “Florida is a transient place, much like Atlanta, Phoenix, etc.—markets that have gone through their own fair share of attendance ups and downs over the years.”
Frank adds that it doesn’t help that Florida’s sports teams are mostly new in a state whose residents are, well, mostly old. “My dad moved here from Pittsburgh, and he was a Pirates fan. That’s more typical for the Rays market.” It’s only now, he says, that homegrown fans of Florida sports teams have disposable income of their own with which to buy tickets (and hats and jerseys of whichever player they think might stick around long enough to amortize their investment).
And Florida has one other thing that most sports franchises don’t have to deal with: beaches. “We do have more options for free entertainment,” says Frank.
“It’s really competitive for that last dollar you have left over after paying your rent.”
Theory No. 6: Everything sucks
If our panel of Rays followers agrees on one thing, it’s that the team has managed to land in a perfect storm of market problems, all combining to compound each other in ways that no other franchise faces.
“It’s like a secret sauce—there’s a dash of bad ownership, there’s a dash of previous cities’ allegiances because it’s Florida and everyone moves here from somewhere else, there’s a dash of hard to get to,” says Frank.
The question then becomes: Which diagnosis do you address, and what is the cure? If the Trop is the biggest problem, the current plan of building a new stadium in St. Pete will help. (Though still maybe not enough to make its construction cost worthwhile, which is why Sternberg has been consistently lowballing the amount of money he’s willing to chip in for a new building.) If St. Pete is the problem, building it on the Tampa side of the bay will help. If Sternberg or too many Yankee fans is the problem, maybe you can find a new owner or shift to a less unbalanced schedule. But if the Tampa Bay region or Florida itself is the problem, the only solution is moving the team elsewhere once its lease is up in 2027.
This is, to put it mildly, not a new idea, but it’s one that is gathering support: Even Longoria recently suggested (albeit with an implicit frowny-face) that it might be time to move the Rays. Still, finding a new home without problems of its own is no easy feat. Ever since the Expos moved to Washington, D.C., MLB has been perhaps the sports league with the best saturation of big and even mid-sized markets, meaning many of the cities left on the table have issues as well. First and foremost: None of them has an MLB-ready stadium, or likely the stomach to meet Sternberg’s public-funding demands.
“Montreal has more income, more of a corporate base, and they likely have much more disposable income than Tampa Bay does right now,” says Pransky. “But, again, what would it take for Montreal to get the Rays? Probably a fully financed stadium, to make it worth it for the Rays to leave the equity they’ve built here. So it all comes down to: Who’s going to make it worth it for the Rays to move into a new ballpark?”
That is a recipe for a bidding war. Which means the fate of baseball in Tampa Bay may come down less to whether the region deserves a team than to the state of the stadium bidding wars when we get to 2027. At least if Mother Nature doesn’t have other plans in the meantime.
Neil deMause has covered sports economics for more publications than even he can shake a stick at. He’s co-author of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, and runs the website of the same name.