After last night’s 4-0 loss to the Orioles in which the Rays blew a chance to clinch a playoff spot, Evan Longoria and David Price lashed out at the Rays fanbase. Talking about a sparse crowd of 12,446 for a potential clincher, Price called the situation embarrassing while Longoria referred to it as disheartening. This set off a Twitter war in which many criticized the pair for ripping into a fanbase mired in the throes of an awful recession while others applauded them for noting an obvious problem. Yankees fans, at least the ones that I interacted, tended to be in the first group, lamenting poor attendance for a team that has been competitive for three years now. While I understand that last night’s attendance figure looks atrocious on the surface, I think there are a number of factors that many people critical of the Rays fanbase are missing.
The most important point that I can make is to note that the Rays do very well on television and on the radio. This season, they are 7th in the majors in both television and radio ratings, according to Sports Business Daily (thanks to @capitolavenue for link). This suggests that the fans are far from apathetic, and that there is a strong core group of individuals who follow the Rays on a day-to-day basis. Just from my experience dealing with bloggers on the internet, it is fairly easy to see that there are plenty of passionate, involved Rays fans. The idea that there are no Rays fans is a myth perpetuated by poor attendance numbers. They have the fans, they just cannot get them out to the ballpark. The question then becomes, why not?
There are a number of factors that can explain the lack of fan involvement:
1) Tropicana Field is an ugly ballpark in an awful location. This is the simplest explanation, and in my view, the driving factor for the Rays poor attendance numbers. There are no public transportation options to reach the stadium, and the drive to the ballpark is usually plagued by traffic. Additionally, the park is not actually in the primary population center in the area, separated from Tampa by a bridge. Another problem with the location of the ballpark is that those fans that are very close to the ballpark tend to be elderly or transients, two groups that are not likely to purchase season tickets or purchase many seats on game day. The location of the ballpark makes for a perfect storm that suppresses attendance despite legitimate fan interest.
2) The ailing economy has hit the Tampa/St. Pete area particularly hard, with unemployment numbers in the area exceeding 12%. People without jobs or with less disposable income are likely to stay away from the ballpark and watch the games at home, which is exactly what is going on in Tampa. Remember, the fans did show up for clinching games in 2008, suggesting that something may have changed since then that has impacted the ability of fans to turn up at the ballpark. The current economic climate seems to be one such factor.
3) The Rays were awful for many, many years and have very little positive history on which to draw. It is very difficult to build a season-ticket base in a football state when the team is that bad for that long without ever showing the slightest bit of improvement. As such, while you may build some interest in the club, you are unlikely to get people to invest in the team until they sustain success for an extended period of time. Combine this factor with the fact that they are now contending in the middle of a recession and that the ballpark is difficult to get to and is fairly dingy, and you have a situation where it is unlikely that they will be able to build a significant season ticket base for a while. (Additionally, I am told by @leokitty that their ticket plans are an atrocity, and do not incentivize purchasing tickets).
Last night, I suggested that the Rays need a new ballpark in the Tampa area to survive in that region, and most Rays fans agreed with me. However, the local governments in Tampa are not amenable to building a publicly funded ballpark, and the current owners do not seem likely to build one on their own. The Rays may not be long for Tampa Bay, but it is not due to a lack of fan interest. Rather, it is a structural and economic issue that has limited the team’s ability to draw their fans away from their television sets and radios into the ballpark.
It is very easy to sit back as Yankee fans and criticize the Rays fanbase for its failure to show up to watch a contender. We follow a team that has contended for about 100 years and has a brand new ballpark that is easily reached by various forms of public transportation. There was a time, not too long ago, that the Mets outdrew the Yankees in New York, so the idea that Yankee fans will show up in any circumstances is a myth perpetuated by fans who began following the team in 1996. Fans tend to be fickle, and factors such as stadium accessibility can play a major role in an individual’s decision on whether to go to the ballpark or watch at home. Until the Yankees move their Stadium to an area unreachable by public transportation, it is not our place to judge Rays fans for not going to Tropicana Field, particularly when there are many factors distinct from fan apathy that contribute to the Rays attendance issues.