Commentary

Trop is a home-field disadvantage

Despite another playoff run, ticket sales are still tanking for Tampa Bay

Updated: October 11, 2013, 3:19 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Tropicana FieldKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsTampa Bay has tried to make going to The Trop fun with a live petting tank for rays.

Tampa Bay.

Rays.

Can this marriage be saved?

One party is clearly giving more than the other. Despite the third lowest payroll in baseball, the Rays have provided six straight winning seasons -- a current streak matched only by the Yankees and Cardinals -- while making four postseason appearances in the past six years.

For its part, Tampa Bay has generated the lowest per-game attendance in all of baseball (18,645). The Rays couldn't even sell out their two American League Division Series games against the always-popular Red Sox. No wonder commissioner Bud Selig calls the Rays' attendance situation "a disgrace."

How does the Memphis Rays sound?

As Tampa Bay says its goodbye to the Rays for the 2013 season, it may seem too soon to ask if and when the Rays will say goodbye to Tampa Bay. But clearly, the relationship isn't working.

There is plenty of blame to go around. A lot of it falls on Tropicana Field, which is located in St. Petersburg, Fla., and seemed outdated even when it opened in 1990. Most of the population base is on the other side of the bay in Tampa, and there is a certain reluctance to cross over. As the locals say, "It's a much larger body of water than you think."

There is also a history of civic rivalry to cross. St. Pete is holding the Rays to a lease that does not run out until 2027 -- when Evan Longoria will be 42. So any plans to build a new stadium closer to the population nucleus are moot until someone buys out the lease. Even if that happened, taxpayers would still have to be convinced to help underwrite a $550 million stadium. (The Rays would contribute $150 million.)

Indianapolis Rays, anyone?

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonIf Evan Longoria isn't enough of a draw for the Rays, can they stay in Tampa Bay.

The ownership is also being squeezed by Major League Baseball, which gives it an estimated $35 million in revenue sharing yearly, according to a 2010 report by Deadspin.com. The league is running out of patience. Selig has been beating the drum for a new stadium for years, but he also steadfastly refuses to pay St. Pete's ransom demand.

Taxpayers built a new stadium for the Miami Marlins, and they finished 29th in attendance. The excuse there is that the team is bad. The Rays are good, but they need a new stadium. The Sunshine State is certainly asking for a lot.

There is this nagging feeling that major league baseball will never work in Florida. Spring training takes the bloom off of the rose of the regular season. Much of the populace is made up of transplants with allegiances elsewhere, and senior citizens with fixed incomes. The summers can be enervating, what with high temperatures and afternoon showers. Why not sit at home in the air conditioning and watch the Rays on TV?

In a few years, they may have to watch the Carolina Rays.

Tampa-St. Pete is the 13th largest TV market in the country. You can't walk a block in Pinellas or Hillsborough County without seeing someone in a Rays shirt. Yet the Rays can't sell north of 6,000 season tickets, and it would take 15,000 for them to survive, much less thrive.

"Something needs to be done," Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently told USA Today, "and nothing's happening. We've got an enormous following, but something is clearly stopping people from coming through our doors. This isn't a one- or two-year thing. Even the economy has picked up a bit, and our attendance has gone down."

The Rays have tried nearly everything. Free parking on certain days and for cars with four people. Food is permitted to be brought into the park. And they've made The Trop a great place to watch the game, with friendly ushers, lively in-game entertainment, a variety of concessions, and that Ray Tank into which Jose Lobaton's ALDS Game 3 walk-off homer splashed down.

The organization wanted to go deeper in the playoffs, both for pride and for payroll. As it is, the Rays may have to lower their budget for players because of the disappointing attendance.

They have succeeded in one area. By turning what was once the laughingstock of baseball into a perennial contender, they have given Tampa Bay a new identity. They planted a seed, and it deserves the chance to grow. Their plucky band of overachievers have gone toe-to-toe with Boston and New York and given the area a newfound sense of pride.

They just can't get 'em to buy a damn ticket.

All right, the Rays bowed out early. But now is not the time to rue what happened. Now is the time to figure out how the Tampa Bay and the Rays can work together to put more people in the Trop.

Besides, Montreal Rays doesn't sound right.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.