A week in Rays attendance writing

While the Tampa Bay Lightning grabbed most of the sports headlines in Tampa Bay due to their playoff run, several local sports writers looked at Tropicana Field for additional stories. They found them in the subject of Rays attendance.

Yes, the Rays attendance does not look good. At all. Through 25 games, their average per game attendance of 15,023 was the worst since the 2002-2005 era.

Rays Average Per Game Attendance Through 25 Home Games:

  • 2003: 11,835
  • 2002: 13,446
  • 2005: 13,986
  • 2004: 14,291
  • 2015: 15,023
  • 2001: 15,077

This poor turnout has lead several local scribes scrambling to determine why. Many are looking at the Lightning success as cannibalizing other area sports. Others say Rays fans are turned off by stadium politics. Yet others even write the home of the Rays owner makes a difference.

This post will dissect each article, pull out their theories, and see how provable they are. Are the writers basing their articles on fact or on speculation? Are they talking to sports business experts or any local resident who happens to have an idea?

The first article of the week to discuss Rays turnout was written by acclaimed author Peter Golenbock in Creative Loafing.

Golenbock leans on a lot of familiar theories to include:

  • Non-native fans holding on to non-Tampa Bay sports allegiances
  • The impact of Spring Training on the sports economy
  • HD TVs
  • The condition of Tropicana Field
  • The presence of the Yankees in Tampa
  • The bridges (aka distance from a large segment of the population)
  • Where Rays ownership makes his residence

Unfortunately, Golenbock uses no statistics to prove the impact of any of his theories. While I agree with several, without numbers, his article is just a bunch of guesses.

Regular readers of this site know I have put numbers to the demographics issue, the impact of Spring Training, the presence of the Yankees, and the distance issue. The rest of his theories are useless without polling or surveys. And the HD TV issue is a weak crutch, unless more Tampa Bay area residents own HD TV than any other MLB market.

And if owners needed to live near team, how do we explain the popularity of the Yankees in New York when George Steinbrenner lived in Tampa? That’s a tin foil hat, sport radio speculation theory if I ever heard one.

The next article to discuss Rays attendance was written by Chris O’Donnell in the Tampa Tribune. O’Donnell used a lot of statistics in his opening paragraphs, which was good.

Among the reasons O’Donnell cites:

  • Departure of big names such as Maddon and Zobrist
  • Excitement around the Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Impact of fantasy stats on in-game experience
  • The retirement of Yankees stars on games versus the Yankees
  • The condition of Tropicana Field

My biggest critique of O’Donnell’s article is who he used as sources.

  • NY-based sports marketing company CEO Brandon Steiner
  • St. Petersburg City Councilman Karl Nurse
  • Brett Morgan of the Top off the Trop effort
  • Daniel Etna, a sports law attorney at New York firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP
  • St. Petersburg Councilman Jim Kennedy

Of these, Brett Morgan has the most credibility. Politicians and NY-based sources are not experts on the Tampa Bay sports market. All they have is guesses, none of which they prove or disprove. So while, O’Donnell’s article presented the problem well, it lost focus when it tried to determine the “why”.

The next day, Tom Jones of the Tampa Bay Times penned an editorial that continued the Lightning versus Rays narrative. Jones says Rays attendance is plummeting because the Lightning are the most “fun” team in town.

While I would agree Lightning games have become an event, and events trump regular season games on Sundays and twice over on weekdays, Jones’s rationale is completely without merit.

Without any polling or market surveys, here are the reasons why Jones says the Lightning are the most popular team in Tampa Bay:

  • Community-focused ownership
  • Lightning games are fun to watch
  • Hockey players are the best people

Only the second of these has any credibility. But without polling or surveys, Jones is assuming he is the voice of the Tampa Bay sports fan. But when Tampa Bay is as diverse as he claims it is, how can he claim to know what fans like or don’t like?

Finally, there is his claim that “Tampa Bay is not considered a great sports market”. This is a comment I hear often and I think it is horrible. There is no “ranking” of sports markets. How would this be done? Attendance? Amount of sports radio airtime? Ratings? Jersey sales? People who identify as sports fans?

What Tampa Bay does lack is a unified sports fanbase. That is because Florida is more of a melting pot than most states. Pittsburgh, Kansas City, etc do not have that problem. That does not make Tampa Bay a weak overall market. The same amount of time is being spent on sports as any other place. What diversity does is make Tampa Bay a difficult market to “win” for local teams.

The fourth and most recent article to discuss Rays attendance was co-written by Tampa Bay Times writers Zachary T. Sampson and Claire McNeill. This was probably the best article of the bunch.

Like O’Donnell, Sampson and McNeill introduce their article with a lot of facts and figures, and explore Rays attendance when the Lightning play. Like O’Donnell, they also quote several people to get different perspectives.

But who Sampson and McNeill talked to made all the difference.

  • Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Sports Bars outside of Tropicana Field and Amalie Arena
  • Michael Mondello, professor of sports marketing in the University of South Florida Muma College of Business
  • William Sutton, director of the USF Sport and Entertainment Management program
  • Three random local fans

Of course, the fans provide emotional responses. They are fans, that’s what they do. But I really liked the quotes from marketing professors. They are in the business of teaching people how to win hearts and minds. They are experts in their field and they are local.

The only thing that would have made the article better is if they talked to a sports economist as well. In a highly competitive sports market such as Tampa Bay both marketing and economics play equal roles.

Four articles in five days. If Rays attendance continues to slide, we can expect more. Some will be good, some will pure speculation. Every so often I’ll opine on which is worth the read.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *