Can the Rays ever draw 2.5 million fans?

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Last week, Rays owner Stu Sternberg spoke with Tampa Bay Times Rays beat writer Marc Topkin. Sternberg had a lot to say about the Rays ability to compete within the economic landscape of Major League Baseball. Sternberg talked about how difficult it is for the Rays to field a team given their low income streams.

Of course, the comment that got the most attention was Sternberg’s announcement that the TV deal with SunSports does not expire next year as has been frequently mentioned. Several bloggers tracked down where the confusion came from, and now we are sure we don’t know what we thought we were sure of.

But another line Sternberg said caught my attention. According to Topkin, “Sternberg admits they don’t know for sure whether (a new stadium in a new location) will increase attendance by a million or so to get to the 2.5 million mark he feels would work”.

Stu Sternberg believes the Rays need to draw 2.5 million fans. 2,500,000.

Last year, the Rays drew less than 1.25 million fans. In their inaugural year of 1998, the then-Devil Rays drew 2.5 million. They were also a novelty and an event.

I have often compared the Tampa Bay baseball market to the Pittsburgh baseball market. Both cities have three professional sports (MLB, NHL, and NFL), both are small markets, and both cities are too economically stretched out to support the amount of sports they have.

Here is another fact: the Pirates have never drawn 2.5 million fans in their franchise history. Last year, the Pirates drew 2,498,596 fans, the most in their 120-year history. They still ranked 9th in the 15-team National League and 15th overall in MLB in attendance.

Facts about the Pirates past: Prior to the team improvement, the Pirates finished last or second to last in the NL in attendance every year from 2004 to 2012. Going back even further, in the 1980s there were several rumors of relocation, despite the fact that the Pirates had been in Pittsburgh since the 1880s. In 1985, a group of businessmen were exploring buying the Pirates and moving them to Denver and in 1995, Norton Herrick toyed with the idea of buying the Pirates and moving them to Orlando if a new stadium wasn’t built in Pittsburgh.

Sound familiar?

Back to attendance potential …

While the Tampa Bay metro population is approximately 500,000 people greater than Pittsburgh, the Pirates have two huge advantages on the Rays. First and foremost, the Pirates play in a beautiful downtown stadium. Of course, the Rays want a new stadium and hope to build one in the relatively near future.

Even if the Rays can get a new stadium in a perfect location to maximize possible attendance, they still might struggle drawing more than the Pirates. As I mentioned in a post on Rays Index,

Using the Facebook/New York Times survey from 2014, data shows 56% of Pinellas County and 51% of Hillsborough County are Rays fans. Comparably, 68% of Pittsburgh’s Alleghany County roots for the Pirates.

Other counties in the Pittsburgh area also have high percentages of Pirates fans.

  • Butler County: 71%
  • Westmoreland County: 68%
  • Washington County: 68%
  • Fayette County: 66%

Besides Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, no other county in Florida has over 50% Rays fans.

The bottom line is there are more fans of the local team and a less splintered demographic around Pittsburgh than in Tampa Bay. Most people in the Pittsburgh area are Pirates fans. That is not the case for the Rays.

So even with a 500,000 person advantage in population, the Rays would have a very difficult time matching the Pirates in attendance. And the Pirates set a franchise high with an amount just beneath of what Stu Sternberg believes the Rays should reach.

I’m not sure who put the 2.5 million number in Stu Sternberg’s head, but even with a new ballpark, following the honeymoon bump, it will be nearly impossible to achieve.

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