When the Interleague schedule was set for 2009, many circled the dates that the Philadelphia Phillies would be playing at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays. After all, it would be a rematch of last season’s World Series.
And, there was little doubting that the front office for the Rays were looking forward to the match-up. Surely, it would draw plenty of fans through the gate, and bring in some much needed extra revenue.
The reality has been, the series started off flat, both in terms of the gate, and in terms of the play of the field.
Tuesday saw the start of the series with a 10-1 shellacking of the Rays by the Phillies with an anemic 19,608 in paid attendance. Of the 15 games played on Tuesday, only the match-up of cellar-dwellers Cleveland at Pittsburg drew worse at 19,109.
When Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times covered yesterday’s game, he approached Rays president Matt Silverman on the subject. Silverman seemed resigned to a head scratch on the attendance.
"As we were planning for the season, we circled this series as one of the most compelling of the year," he said. "It's a rare privilege to host a rematch of the World Series, especially against a team with local connections. Based on all the information we had, we projected full houses. It's a huge miss."
Silverman said team officials are perplexed why attendance hasn't been better: The Rays are averaging 22,703, which ranks in the bottom third of the AL and the majors. Their goal for the season was to be around the major-league average, which was 29,562 entering play Tuesday.
"Quite frankly, we don't know what to attribute it to, but it's not just the economy," he said. "It’s bewildering. There seems to be great affection for the team and excitement for the '09 campaign, but it's not showing up at the gate at all."
Silverman’s response elicited a negative response to the Rays faithful.
As reported this evening by Aaron Sharockman of the St. Pete Times (Tampa Bay Rays fans react to ownership criticism about attendance), some fans brought up Interleague play, while others mentioned ticket prices.
"I understand the frustration of Mr. Silverman ... But can you blame us?" asked Scott Wyler, 32, of St. Petersburg. "They're a National League team that has very little implication on our division."
Fans like Wyler questioned everything, from the location of the ballpark, to the premium prices the Rays decided to charge for the Phillies series, to the fact that the games took place during the week and not on the weekend.
"Maybe the front office could look at 'incentive' and 'promo' ideas for weeknight games, as well as weekend series," said Sue Nette, 56, a season ticket holder from Seminole who complained that the Phillies series was not part of her season ticket package. "That might certainly draw more fans to those games."
Reached for comment, Silverman clarified his statements the day before.
"I may have said things about the market but not our fans — we love the fans that come to the games," Silverman said.
Sharockman approached myself and fellow Baseball Prospectus colleague Neil DeMause of Field of Schemes for our thoughts on the matter. Neil said (and I very much agree):
"[Silverman] doesn't actually pin blame on the fans, just say he's disappointed," said deMause. "But then, I lived through the heyday of (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner, who would have called his fans unprintable names, demanded a new stadium, then fired his pitching coach for good measure."
In addressing the fan turn out, I am quoted as saying:
"It is no longer a matter of, 'What have you done for me lately?' but rather, 'What are you doing for me now?'," said Maury Brown, founder of bizofbaseball.com.
That quote was a small part of what I said to Sharockman regarding Silverman’s comments. Here now is my total reply:
A losing culture over long periods of time makes it difficult for fans to make a sustained investment in a team, when they are losing. I expect that overall attendance would have remained at near levels they were at last year, if the Rays had remained at the competitive levels we saw throughout 2008 at the beginning of this season.
All that said, Silverman's frustration over the Phillies series has some merit. Given that the Phillies are in first, and played the Rays in the World Series last year, one would expect fans to come in higher numbers for the rematch. It may come back to that "emotional investment" comment I made prior. It is no longer a matter of, "What have you done for me lately?" but rather, "What are you doing for me now?"
So, I can’t really subscribe to Scott Wyler’s comments. Interleague draws well for every other club, so landing the World Series Champions that your home team played in the year prior is premiere scheduling.
As for Ms. Nette’s comments, certainly more promos can be done, but management should be expected to try and parlay the one and only postseason shot at the brass ring (the World Series) into extra revenues. You can’t do non-stop promos.
If Silverman is looking for something to attribute the poor showing to it’s this: the Naimoli era. Fans need more than a first date after years of losing before they’re ready to go steady. And they need even more winning to get through the “for better or worse” part of a marriage with their hometown club. Silverman and Co. will have to remain patient, which isn’t easy given the money they’re pouring into the Trop and the roster.
Sharockman reported before Wednesday night's game was in the books that the Rays are expecting more, and better, with crowds of around 20,000 expected for the remainder of the series, which ends on Thursday.
Apparently, the fans didn't get the memo.
Wednesday night's game which saw the Rays win 7-1 over the Phillies drew less than Tuesday's abysmal showing. The final paid attendance for the game was announced at 18,862, or 247 fans less than the 19,109 for the series opener. Welcome to the Curse of Vince Naimoli.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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