It seems the Tampa Bay area has become synonymous with attendance issues in recent years. The Rays attendance problems have been a common talking point for the national media ever since 2008, and the Lightning recently were the victims of a somewhat unfair smear campaign by the Boston Bruins this past month. And apparently, even the Buccaneers -- easily the most widely loved team in the area -- isn't immune to attendance talk.
Do the teams in the Tampa Bay area have attendance "problems"? That depends who you ask and how you look at the question. Many media members love to simplify attendance issues and get hyperbolic in their attacks on the area. "Tampa Bay fans don't deserve the Rays." "How can fans not support this team? They must not care." Attendance is boiled down to one variable -- fan dedication -- since, you know, it's easy to make jokes that way.
But when media members do this, I feel like they miss out on a perfect chance. Sports attendance is a huge issue these days across all sports, as leagues are becoming more and more focused on growing revenue streams, and the Tampa Bay are provides a perfect case study on how complicated the issue can be. The national eye has already linked "Tampa Bay" and "attendance" together; why not use the Tampa Bay area to discuss the sort of large scale problems facing sports teams as a whole?
There are a ton of variables that can affect attendance. You know, there's the economy (both national and local). The size of a market versus how many sports teams it can support. The availability of public transportation. The location of a stadium in relation to population centers. These are issues that all affect the Tampa Bay area, but also many, many other teams out there as well.
And yesterday, owners Stuart Sternberg (Rays) and Bryan Glazer (Bucs) brought two more variables to the forefront. From the St. Petersburg Times:
During an owners roundtable discussion at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission's inaugural Sneaker Soiree, Sternberg was asked by moderator Rock Riley what he has learned about Tampa Bay that he did not know when he bought the team.
Sternberg paused briefly before answering: "Water is a big divide."
And from ProFootball Talk:
Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer, in a rare radio interview with Steve Duemig of WDAE, explained that the challenge comes from persuading the people to leave the comfort of their man caves.
"We have to make the in-game experience more fun than the home experience. At home, you are just steps from the refrigerator. In-stadium, there is no way to match that experience. But it is a challenge. It's a challenge for all teams, not just football."
Sternberg's comment speaks to a regional issue -- the water and bridges that Tampa residents have to cross in order to reach the Trop -- but touches upon the larger issue of psychological barriers in travel. Does knowing that something is across a bridge or over a body of water make it feel father away than an equal distance traveled over land? If nothing else, knowing that you have to travel somewhere where you know you'll hit traffic certainly isn't an appealing or fun thought.
Glazer's comment I find very interesting, as I think he hits upon one of the most important issues facing all sports teams going forward: how do you make attending a game more attractive than watching it from the comfort of your home? While it used to be that the game experience was far superior in quality to watching a game at home, the pendulum has now swung the other way. You miss out on interacting with fellow fans when you watch a game at home, but in return, you can watch detailed replays and high-definition action shots, and see all the game action much better than you would at the stadium. Not only that, but you don't have to travel, don't have to shell out more money for tickets and food, and you can interact with fans on online via Twitter or other social media sites.
As a whole, baseball's attendance is down 1% so far this season. That's possibly only a result of the exceptionally poor weather this spring, but still, that plays into it; if the weather is bad, why go to a game in person when the at-home experience is so good? This is an issue baseball is going to have to deal with when deciding what to do about a new stadium for the Rays -- open air or retractable roof? -- and it's one that football should especially be worried about. Why should fans shell out hundreds of dollars for nosebleed tickets to games in the snow and rain, when they could use that money on a home entertainment system and watch the games in Hi-Def comfort?
So to any media members out there thinking about making a wise-crack about the attendance for any Tampa Bay team -- or any sports team, for that matter -- stop and think about it first. Instead of making a glib joke, why not add something worthwhile to the discussion?