The Rays Cowbell Conundrum

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In April 2006, a Tropicana Field tradition was born. Inspired by the famous Will Ferrell SNL sketch, Rays owner Stu Sternberg suggested entertainment director John Franzone play the clip on the scoreboard. Shortly after, the Rays Team started ringing cowbells and within the year, cowbells were the Rays signature gimmick.

The Rays marketing team jumped on the cowbells and the fans, led by the Cowbell Kid, devoured it. Cowbells were everywhere. People had them in their workspaces, in their cars, and on their t-shirts.

A lot has changed since the height of the cowbell phenomenon in 2008.

The Rays no longer play the Will Ferrell sketch.

The Cowbell Kid no longer dons his blue afro and goes to games. (As a matter of fact, the new 360 degree concourse removed his once-famous seat.)

The Cowbell Etiquette video hasn’t been updated in 4 years.

Most recently, a fan was removed from Tropicana Field and banned for the season for a cowbell-ringing incident. (Granted, he was cited as “belligerent”.) The incident made the news and brought more unneeded bad press on the Rays in a season that has been full of bad news or bad results.

And in what may be the cowbell coup de grace, on Saturday night a Red Sox minor league team possibly set the Guiness World Record for largest cowbell ensemble. According to the Guiness Record website, the record was either 640 or 1,003 at Ryerson University in 2012. The Portland Sea Dogs eclipsed both amounts by having 1,935 fans ringing cowbells on Saturday night.

How ironic that the newsworthy kicked-out fan “disrupted” Red Sox fans and weeks later a Red Sox minor league team usurps the throne of cowbell king. That might not have been planned by the Red Sox front office, but I’m sure they don’t mind seeing the Rays’ number one gimmick undercut by Boston minor league affiliate.

In 2011, I wrote that the Rays should reinvigorate the cowbell as a signature gimmick. Back then I claimed the enthusiasm for the cowbell wasn’t what it used to be and the Rays marketing team should bring it back. Now, I’m not sure the cowbell has credibility.

It might even be time to kill off the cowbells.

Although cowbells gave Rays fans a sense of cacophonous community, the organization would look hypocritical encouraging more cowbell after tossing out a fan for doing that exact action. Yes, there was more to the situation than merely ringing cowbells, but that wouldn’t be recognized. The news headline didn’t read “Belligerent Fan Banned”, it read “Cowbell-Ringing Fan Banned”.

While it might be tempting to reclaim cowbell dominance, the Rays should resist. Competing with a minor league team for cowbell supremacy is not a good look. Major League teams don’t try to out-gimmick minor league teams. It’s bush league to battle the bus leagues.

Third, the Portland Sea Dog promotion caught the eye of bloggers covering Mississippi State University. According to their write-up, the cowbell is a big part of the Mississippi State football experience. If enacted, Mississippi State’s average attendance of 55,695 would quickly surpass any Rays attempt to hold the cowbell record.

So what should the Rays do?

First, update the cowbell etiquette video. Have the actors actually be in the crowd ringing. Maybe even crowdsource the rules video. Let fans submit their best 2-minute cowbell rules videos. Show the best two or three submitted videos. Perhaps one before the game, and the other before the bottom of the fifth inning – the halfway point of the game.

Second, let Mississippi State break the record in the upcoming college football season. If the school doesn’t break the record this season, the Rays should attempt to seize the record on Opening Day 2015. By then, enough time would have passed and it wouldn’t look like the Rays are immediately responding to the actions of a Minor League team.

The cowbell gimmick still has intangible value for the Rays. That value, however, has never been lower. What the Rays do this year and in the future with the cowbell will be interesting to watch.

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