The Continued Struggle for the Soul of the Florida Sports Fan


Jordi Scrubbings is back with his take on Rays attendance…

Last year, I wrote an article for this site entitled “The Battle for the Passion of the Florida Sports Fan”. In that article, I explored how the Rays were at the short end of a fight to get attention in a rapidly expanding Florida sports scene.

This year I have continued to track attendance and viewing trends. I have saved almost every post I can find from this site, other Rays sites, Bucs sites, Florida Minor League Baseball sites, and anywhere else that talks about the comings and goings of Florida sports fans.

Before I begin to dissect the year in attendance trends, I first want to share an interesting tidbit I recently discovered.

Did you know that in 2010 the Rays drew 95% of the combined attendance total of the Bulls, Gators, Hurricanes, and Seminoles last year?

Attendance of every 2010 home game of Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Miami, University of Central Florida, and the University of South Florida at their respective stadiums was 2,087,026. This number excludes only UF’s bowl game in Tampa and the UF vs. Georgia game in Jacksonville, as they were not true “home” games.

According to Baseball-Reference, the 2010 Rays drew 1,864,999 people to Tropicana Field in 2010. And another 112,854 during the playoffs. That’s 1,977,853 people and a 95% correlation. Which means almost the same amount of people that went to Rays games last year went to see a game at one of the five major college football programs in Florida.

There is no doubt Florida is still a college football state.

A lot of people would point to the above statistic and say it should be Exhibit A why the Rays should move from Florida – they can’t possibly compete in the Florida sports culture landscape. Baseball will regarded as a novelty especially as the University of South Florida grows in popularity and prominence and Florida State gets back on track, loses to Oklahoma withstanding.

I, of course, disagree.

Last year I argued that there was an oversaturation of sports options in Florida. I still think that is the case. While alumni spend their dollars on tickets and trips to their alma mater, other local fans are selectively picking and choosing which team to financially support.

We know the Bucs had their problems at the gate as well last year, only selling 394,000 tickets in 2010 according to a Wall Street Journal web site – a 24.78% decrease from their glory days in the early 1990s when they were over 500,000. This from the team voted the most popular sports franchise in Florida.

What about the Lightning, you may be asking?

Well, we know like the Rays they have an exciting new ownership group dedicated to turning the franchise around and making it exciting and competitive again. We also know they saw a 13% jump in attendance from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011. And we also know they are racking up the season ticket commitments for 2011-2012. Hockey is doing well in Tampa Bay.

Before I dissect the Rays attendance issues, which I am sure you are well familiar with, I would like to talk about baseball as a whole in the state. Currently in Florida, there are 15 baseball teams in the state – two major league teams, one in the AA Southern League (Jacksonville), and 12 in the Florida State League. In 2012, this number will increase by one when the Carolina Mudcats move to Pensacola.

In 2011, the Florida State League drew 1,296,962 according to Of that attendance, 34% (441,405 people) belonged to teams that played within an hour from Tropicana Field – the Tampa Yankees, Clearwater Threshers, Dunedin Blue Jays, and Bradenton Pirates. Three of these teams saw a massive increase in attendance in 2011 over 2010, and the fourth (Clearwater) only saw a drop of 4.34%, from 2,679 people per game to 2,567.

If these teams did not exist, and the fans who attended these games went to Tropicana Field instead, the Rays would have 5,449 more people in attendance every game. Based on what the Rays have been drawing thus far in 2011, that is almost 25% more people.

Of course, there are many people in Florida who are fans of other teams. According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal, approximately 42% of fans have out-of-town allegiances. Although I am a believer that a hardcore baseball fan will see whatever baseball is offered, if we take this percentage and subtract it from our potential Florida State League fans who could be Rays fans, it’s still 256,015 new butts in Tropicana Field.

Now that we know who wasn’t there and why, we can look at who was there – or the lack of who’s who weren’t there.

Early in the season, the Rays had to compete with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s miraculous playoff run. While over 20,000 fans packed the St. Pete Times Forum, countless numbers were staying at home and tuning in to see if the Lightning could continue their miraculous run to the Stanley Cup. Baseball played second fiddle in sports bars throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Here is a breakdown of Rays attendance while the Lightning were competing in the NHL Playoffs:

April 18th

Lightning vs Pittsburgh Penguins: 20,545

Rays vs White Sox: 12,016

April 20th

Lightning vs Penguins: 20,326

Rays vs White Sox: 13,214

May 3rd

Lightning vs Capitals: 20,613

Rays vs Blue Jays: 10,248

May 4th

Lightning vs Capitals: 20,835

Rays vs Blue Jays: 10,099

Notice as the Lightning attendance numbers go up almost sequentially, the Rays attendance numbers went down. The only exception is April 20th, when the Lightning drew less and the Rays drew more than they did on the first conflicting date. By the time the playoffs ended for the Lightning, they were drawing twice the number of people the Rays were drawing. That’s not to mention the number of people who sat at home or at a sports bar keeping an eye on both teams.

Of course, it also didn’t help that the Rays played terrible out the gate. By the time the Lightning were blazing through the playoffs, the Rays were barely over .500 and attendance was down 30%. And that was following an atrocious start that had some media members and fans thinking the team was going to lose 100 games. On a positive note, by the end of May, a two game set versus the Yankees and a post-game concert from Darius Rucker, attendance was only down 19%.

Although the Rays turned the boat around, fans still weren’t turning their TVs on. Or at least turning them to the Rays broadcast. However, if you look closely at the numbers presented on this post, you will see through July, the Rays TV ratings for this year matched 2008, the year they made the World Series. And 2010 sticks out like a sore thumb. Personally, I think there was something suspicious. TV ratings shouldn’t jump like that. I wonder if there was new way of measurement or if the ratings folks were drumming up numbers for new TV contract or some other conspiratory reason.

In the Trop, things weren’t getting better. While the Rays were rated seventh in baseball in Fan Experience by ESPN (coincidentally, the same organization that trashes the Trop regularly), many fans weren’t being “experienced”, and not in the Jimi Hendrix sort of way. By the end of June, both the Rays and their attendance numbers started to warm up and by the end of July, attendance at the Trop was only 8.3% below 2010 numbers. Of course, their July home schedule was chock full of games against St. Louis, Boston, and the Yankees, all traditional well-drawing teams.

Needless to say, Stu Sternberg wasn’t overwhelmed by the attendance numbers when asked by the media. But what did we expect him to say? He has been in charge here for several years. I am sure the Rays are perfectly aware of their entertainment competition. If the Rays even spend half the amount of brain power on demographics and marketing that they spend on player analysis, nothing the fan base does should surprise them. For example, while the Rays played the Red Sox for on June 16th in front of 23,495, ‘80s rock legends Def Leppard and Heart were in concert at the 1800Gary Amphitheater and the following day country rocker Keith Urban was playing at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Now again, I am not saying everyone who goes to another event would have gone to a Rays game, but even 10% of 20,000 concert attendees would help change the image of an empty Tropicana Field.

With a week or so left in the season, the Rays will probably finish with an attendance of around 1.5 million people. As a comparison, that’s more than the 1964 World Series-bound Yankees, who played in Old Yankee Stadium with a capacity of 67,000; almost double the attendance of the 1974 A’s, who finished first in the AL West; a hair under the 1984 Red Sox, who finished 86-76; a smidge under the 1996 Expos, who won 88 games; and 200,000 more seats filled than the 2006 Devil Rays, who lost 101 games.

Not every team has drawn well. The 1927 Yankees, which many think was the greatest team ever, drew barely over a million people, or 20% of the population of New York City in 1920, which was 5,620,048. These people came to see a franchise that was 17 years old.  If only 20% of the Tampa Bay area came to see the Rays, a team that is only 14 years old, the team would draw far below a million.

Another way to look at attendance is to examine how baseball looks at attendance. There has been an explosion of attendance numbers and expectations in the last 20 years. As a comparison, if we take the Rays estimated 1.5 million attendance in 2011 and see where it would rank through the last 50 years, we get:

2001: Last.

1991: 13th.

1982: Tenth. (Using 1982 due to the 1981 strike and lost games.)

1971: Third.

1961: Third.

Finally, let’s do a comparison. Keeping with New York City, the 2010 Metropolitan area population of NYC was 18,897,109. Divide that by two teams (9,448,554.5) and keep the 42% out-of-town percentage, and you get 5,480,162 possible fans. After a final homestand against Boston, the Yankees should lead the American League with approximately 3.6 million in attendance, or 65% of possible attendees.

In contrast, the Tampa Bay Metropolitan area population in 2010 was 4,228,855. Subtract 42% or 1,776,119 and you get 2,452,736 possible hardcore Rays fans. If the Rays draw 1.5 million people, that’s 61% of possible attendees. Not bad for a city area with no public transportation.

Florida is a perfect storm of potential attendance problems. Poor economy, diluted sports base, non-native allegiances, no traditional fan bases, and a fine whirl of other entertainment. I doubt any team in Florida will ever grace the upper echelon of attendance rankings. It just won’t happen. But teams will keep playing here and sports will continue to be a big part of Florida’s culture. The weather is too nice and the games are too fun to play and watch for that to be otherwise.

As for the Rays, well, if I had the answer to that dilemma, I wouldn’t be writing here. I would be working in a think tank with greater minds than mine figuring out life’s other great problems: who put the bomp in the bomp, bomp, bomp; why is JP Howell still pitching; and who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong?

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