Contract Rays? Here's why it's a bad idea

April, 5, 2011
4/05/11
3:56
PM ET
Mike Ozanian writes a blog called SportsMoney for Forbes. He posted an entry Monday that threw no caution to the wind, declaring, "Groundswell building in Major League Baseball to dump the Tampa Bay Rays. From what I am hearing, I doubt there will be any baseball at Tropicana Field after 2014 even though the team's lease runs to 2027."

Ozanian doesn't say who he's hearing this from and doesn't cite any sources. He does later mention "high-revenue team owners," so maybe those are his sources. And he's not the only writer to throw a "contract the Rays" opinion out there, as I read more than one piece this offseason suggesting such a move.

Ozanian goes on to write, "The harsh reality is the Rays still have no fan support despite winning the AL East two out of the past three seasons and making it to the 2008 World Series."

[+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
AP Photo/Charles KrupaJoe Maddon has led Tampa Bay to the postseason twice since taking over as manager in 2006.
Let's examine that statement a little closer.

No support? The Rays actually finished ninth in the AL attendance last season, drawing 1.86 million fans. Sure, you'd like to see a playoff team draw more, but I don't think that's a bad total considering:

(A) Tampa's market size. The Rays play in MLB's 19th-largest market. The Tampa metro area has a population of 2.74 million (2009 estimate). New York, by comparison, has a metro area of more than 19 million people.
(B) You have a franchise with no history except the past three years, no generation after generation of building up a fan base, of fathers and mothers taking their kids to games. It takes time.
(C) The stadium isn't so great. This is, arguably, a legitimate issue.

Let's assume one of those high-revenue owners is Hank Steinbrenner. The Steinbrenners have done a lot of complaining over the years about revenue sharing, ignoring the fact that free-market supply and demand isn't actually in play here, since MLB controls where a team can move -- for example, the Rays just can't up and relocate to New Jersey.

Anyway, the Yankees have the greatest fans in baseball, right? You can make that argument. They've led the AL in attendance the past seven seasons. But ... well, that hasn't always been the case. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, they won three World Series, and yet finished only third in attendance each season. In 1996, they won the World Series and yet placed a lowly seventh in the AL in attendance. They drew 2.2 million fans, not too much more than Tampa Bay drew last season, despite playing in a market nearly nine times the size. In 1992, the team won 76 games and drew -- get this -- only 1.75 fans, fewer than Tampa Bay drew in any of the past three seasons. That was the second straight season the Yankees had finished 11th in the AL in attendance.

You can do the same thing for other teams. From 1993 to 1997, the Mets ranked 11th, 13th, 11th, 12th and 10th in the NL in attendance. The Cubs are a great draw now, but they never drew 1.8 million fans in a season until 1984. The Giants finished last in the NL in attendance five times in the '70s, drew a little better in the late '80s when they were good, saw the attendance dip again in the late '90s, picked up with a new stadium and better team (they led the NL in attendance in 2001-2003), and then fell off again, only to increase with last year's playoff run.

In the opposite direction, look at teams like Cleveland, Baltimore and Seattle. The Indians finished last in attendance in the majors in 2010. But they were once the hottest ticket in baseball, selling out 455 consecutive games from the late '90s through 2001. Same thing in Baltimore. I grew up in Seattle, a team that threatened to move repeatedly in its early years -- the fans didn't care, bad stadium, and so on. When the team got good, the fans came out -- Seattle, once the most barren of AL outposts -- led the league in attendance in 2001 and 2002 and became one of the biggest revenue-generating clubs in the majors.

Things can change. Give the Rays a few more years to continue building a fan base. No, they won't ever be the revenue-producing franchise that the Yankees or Red Sox are, but they can be successful.

Oh, by the way, even without that large fan base or revenue stream ... they've won two of the last three AL East division titles. That's one more division title than the Red Sox have won over the past 15 seasons.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

David Schoenfield | email

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