Is Tropicana Field costing the Rays 2,000 fans per night?

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There have been many articles lately on the problems the Rays have drawing fans to Tropicana Field. Everyone has their pet theories ranging from fan disapproval of Stu Sternberg to the idea that Tampa Bay is a bad area for professional sports. One common theory that many cite is that Tropicana Field is not a good place to watch baseball.

Over the last few weeks, we have also seen several articles and editorials discussing the impact of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Rays attendance. I’ve written about the phenomenon a few times myself.

So which is it: is hockey keeping fans away or it is the stadium? Or a combination of both?

To take a guess at the answer, let’s look at a comparable city and try to extrapolate answers.

In my article last week on Rays Index, I compared the Tampa Bay market to the Pittsburgh market. There are several similarities between these two cities.

Population

  • Tampa Bay: 2,870,569
  • Pittsburgh: 2,659,937

Sports teams:

  • Tampa Bay: MLB, NFL, NHL
  • Pittsburgh: MLB, NFL, NHL

Both cities are also on the American City Business Journal list of “overstretched” cities, meaning there is not enough total income in the city to support the amount of sports franchises.

Six years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins advanced through the NHL Playoffs and won the Stanley Cup. During this time, the Pittsburgh Pirates played 26 home games at PNC Park.

2009 Pittsburgh Pirates – first 26 home games

  • Avg Attendance: 16,588
  • Attendance over 30,000: 2
  • Attendance under 10,000: 4
    • Monday, April 20: 8,790
    • Tuesday, April 21: 9,917
    • Monday, May 4: 8,482
    • Tuesday, May 5: 9,775

The Penguins were not playing at Mellon Arena on any date where the Pirates drew less than 10,000. They played road games on April 21 and May 4 and did not play at all on April 20 and May 5. The following image shows the Penguins 2009 playoff schedule (click to enlarge).

Penguins 2009

On May 29, 2009, The Allegheny Institute wrote about the Pirates attendance. They blamed lack of attendance solely on the Pirates’ record and failed to mention anything on the Penguins’ playoff run. They compared Pittsburgh to St. Louis and lamented that the local government built the new stadium for such a bad team.

The Pirates are filling just 40 percent of the seats in the highly touted PNC Park that was supposed to attract 30,000 fans per game and provide the revenue to make the team competitive. What a bill of goods that was. The taxpayers will never get a positive return on their investment-an investment they did not want to make.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals who play in a similar sized market are drawing over 40,000 per game and in Milwaukee (a smaller metro area than Pittsburgh) the team is pulling over 36,000 per game.

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Pittsburgh has not been a baseball town in the way St. Louis has been and the owners have chosen for years not to have the kind of payroll of teams who are perennially competitive.

Like the Pirates in 2009, the 2015 Tampa Bay Rays are facing severe market competition from their regional hockey team.

2015 Tampa Bay Rays – first 26 home games

  • Avg Attendance: 14,815
  • Attendance over 30,000: 1
  • Attendance 10,000: 2
    • Thursday, May 7: 8,701
    • Tuesday, May 26: 9,628

Like the Pirates, many writers say Tampa Bay is not a “baseball town”. They say it is a poor sports market. Some out-of-town writers even call for the Rays to leave the area based on their attendance.

But where were these national writers when the Pirates weren’t drawing?

There are two major differences between the 2009 Pirates and the 2015 Rays.

  1. Rays are good, Pirates were not
  2. PNC Park was (and still is) considered one of the nicest ballparks in MLB, Tropicana Field is not

Perhaps the Pirates still might have struggled at the gate if they had a winning record. Perhaps the Rays would draw more if they played in a nicer, more centrally located facility.

Currently, the Penguins still make the playoffs, the Pirates are a better team, they still play in PNC Park, and in 2014, they still had regular attendance draws under 15,000. Such is life.

But if we look at the Pirates attendance in the first 26 games of 2009 and subtract the Rays attendance for the first 26 games of 2015, we get a difference of 1,773 more fans per game. For a worse team in a better ballpark with better regional support and a more established fanbase.

Of course it difficult to compare factors between markets, and this requires much more study. But while what is happening in Tampa Bay right now is a rare phenomenon, it is neither new nor exclusive.

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