While there have been many throughout Major League Baseball who have expressed serious doubts regarding the future viability of the Tampa Bay Rays in the St. Petersburg area, it appears that new Commissioner Rob Manfred is not among the doubters.
According to Marc Topkin, a reporter with the Times, the Commissoner expressed his commitment to Tampa Bay and the current Rays ownership group by saying, “There are doubters in baseball,” he said. “Florida has been a challenge for us. But I think we have great management here, and I do believe if anybody can make it work here in Tampa (Bay), you guys have got the right guy.”
Manfred’s position is nearly identical to the one that was held by his predecessor, Mr. Bud Selig. While it does appear that Major League Baseball is going to do everything it can to ensure that the Rays succeed in West Florida, it seems reasonable to wonder if baseball in the Tampa Bay area truly has a viable and long-term future.
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Let’s consider the facts. In addition to the Rays, Tampa Bay is home to the Lightening (NHL), the Buccaneers (NFL), and the University of Central Florida Bulls. For a metropolitan area that boasts a population of approximately 2.7 million people, this is a highly saturated market. In 2015, the Tampa Bay Rays finished dead last in attendance. According to statistics compiled by ESPN, the Rays averaged just over 15,000 fans per home game.
It is accepted that fans will attend sporting events for two primary reasons: to see a winning team and enjoy the amenities that come with the experience. With the Rays, however, something is amiss. Since the Rays first came onto the scene in 1998 they have won quite a few games. The Rays have appeared in the playoffs on four separate occasions (’08, ’10, ’11, ’13) with a World Series appearance in 2008. Though the first decade of Rays baseball was fairly dreadful, for the past eight years the Rays have stayed competitive in the loaded AL East.
So if the Tampa Bay Rays can and do win, why are fans not showing up to watch?
The Rays play in a ridiculously outdated facility known as Tropicana Field. We use the term “field” loosely, due to the fact that there is nothing natural on the playing surface on this indoor facility. Tropicana Field is the smallest venue in Major League Baseball as it allows for just over 31,000 fans. The Rays have been in discussions with MLB and the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area regarding a new stadium for years. While it is no question that the Rays desperately need a new stadium to replace “The Trop,” it is difficult to believe that a new stadium alone will trigger a long-term rise in attendance.
While it is no question that the Rays desperately need a new stadium to replace “The Trop,” a new stadium will not automatically equal a newly loyal and committed fan base. Of course, a new stadium would allow for better seating, concessions, and other amenities coveted by the modern fan it is difficult to believe that a new stadium alone will trigger a long-term rise in attendance.
The Rays have certainly done their part with limited resources and even more limited support. The challenges facing small-market clubs are numerous and the Rays have done their part to stay competitive. It does not appear, however, that either Tampa Bay nor St. Petersburg will be able muster up sufficient support to keep the Rays competitive into the future.