There's no way around it: the Tampa Bay Rays had poor attendance this season. Averaging only 18.8 thousand fans per game, the Rays had their lowest attendance numbers since 2007 -- a year the team lost 96 games and finished in last place. This was a large drop-off for a team that made the playoffs in 2008 and 2010 -- Rays averaged 23 thousand a game last season -- and managed to sneak into the playoffs at the last minute.
If you're looking for a reason why the Rays had poor attendance this season, there are certainly many of them to be found. The Tampa Bay area is a complex one, and one of the most unique markets in MLB. Consider:
- The area has been hit incredibly hard by the recession -- construction and tourism are two industries that aren't doing so hot right now -- and still has unemployment rates in excess of 10%. Underemployment is over 20% in the area, so many people don't have disposable income to throw around.
- The region was developed and expanded in the early to mid 1900s, so their city layout is nothing like cities that were built earlier on. Cars were the dominant mode of transportation by the time Tampa and St. Pete were growing, so the area is very spread out and decentralized. There's also little to no public transportation around.
- This was a rebuilding year for the Rays, and many fans tuned them out once the Rays traded away Matt Garza and lost Carl Crawford during the offseason.
- The Buccaneers have been in the area since the 1970s and have the most rabid local following, yet even they are having trouble selling out. People love their local sports teams, but are simply having trouble getting to the games.
- The Bucs, Lightning, and Rays are all competitive clubs right now, and the Tampa Bay market is one of smallest markets that has three major sports teams. The Lightning's playoff run cut away from the Rays' early season draw, and the Buccaneers drew away fans at the end of the season from the Rays.
So there are definitely reasons why the Tampa Bay area has struggled to fill the stadium for the Rays recently. It's understandable, and in no ways an indictment of the fans. The Tampa Bay area sports some of the most rabid, passionate fans I know.
But at the end of the day, that doesn't change the basic fact that the Rays had very low attendance this season. From a business perspective, if I were the owner of the Rays, I'd be frustrated and worried about my franchise's ability to compete long-term with teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. If you're not bringing in money, how can you expect to keep your business going strong, especially when you have such profitable competitors?
And what do you know, Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg feels the same way:
Video from Marc Topkin, St. Pete Times.
We're getting to the point where we don't control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward.
From the best financial reports available, the Rays are able to turn a profit during a season one of two ways: go deep into the postseason, or keep their payroll under $50 million. The Rays only turned a small ($4m) profit back in 2008 -- the year they went to the World Series -- and it's not hard to imagine that they ended up in the red last season with their $72m payroll.
Can the Rays continue to compete with a payroll under $50m? Are there other ways to draw more support to the stadium? And what's the long-term upside for the franchise if nothing changes going forward? These are all important questions to consider, and they're going to get talked about quite a bit over the next couple of months.