Welcome to a typical regular season game at Tropicana
Field. Prepare for more of it as relocation isn't feasible.
They say winning cures all ills. I used to believe that. But, in the last four years the Tampa Bay/St. Pete market has changed everything.
With the exception of 2009, the Rays have been about as good as anyone could ask for. The next gen of Moneyball, Stuart Sternberg and Andrew Friedman have delivered superior MLB talent with a budget that straddles the edge of minor league. This season, the Rays opening payroll was $41,053,571 or 29th out of the 30 clubs (only the Royals were lower). To place that in perspective, that’s less than half the amount that the 15th ranked club (the Braves), and $30,869,900 less than what they had in 2010 when they ranked 19th in Opening Day payroll.
And yet, the team that went 91-71 had the second lowest attendance in the league. The team that won the American League Wild Card in dramatic fashion saw the second largest drop in attendance behind only the Dodgers. The 2011 Rays season saw 314,257 fewer ticket sold than in 2010, a decline of over 17%. The drop was greater than the Astros who lost an MLB worst 106 games.
SEE A BREAKDOWN OF THE 2011 REGULAR SEASON ATTENDANCE
And, it gets worse.
The Rays on FS Florida/Sun Sports saw the largest audience drop (40,000 households to 66,000). They saw the third largest ratings decline (-37.5% or a 3.67 rating) behind only the Padres and Astros, both of which had poor seasons in the standings (the Astros were a league worst 106 losses).
SEE A BREAKDOWN OF REGIONAL SPORTS NETWORK TELEVISION RATINGS FOR 2011
"When I came in here in '05 and '06, I saw the stars, and I was confident that we could put a winning product on the field -- and I was told by you guys and others that all we needed was a winning team," Sternberg said on Tuesday. "Well, we won. We won. We won. And we won. And it didn't do it."
"I don't have all the answers to it, but we've answered any questions stadium related, market related, economy related, area related, sport related," Sternberg add. "Whatever you want to say, there are 29 other teams passing us like we're going in reverse right now. Except on the field. And at some point that changes. …
"To a team, winning solves ills. And we are four years into winning and we're no better off right now."
So there is talk that the Rays will relocate. Some whisper about contraction. For the moment, forget it.
In 2008, I did an exhaustive look at the Top 10 markets for relocation or expansion in MLB and since I’ve written repeatedly on relocation and contraction.
Tampa Bay, you’re safe. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t: any market you’d look to relocate to is thin – a small or mid-market with caveats. You could move the Rays to Northern New Jersey where there is plenty of population and business to build off of, but the Yankees and the Mets would scream. Go to Portland and you deal with the Mariners. Go to Vegas and you deal with 6 clubs that claim the television market.
Maybe, you consider contraction. After all, former commissioner Fay Vincent confirmed in an interview with The Biz of Baseball that the league expanded in the ‘90s to off-set payments to the players after the owners colluded to hold down player salaries in the ‘80s.
The league tried this with the Expos and to do it, they needed another team to go with them. Back then, it was the Twins. Now…? The Athletics?
It doesn’t matter. The MLBPA would never go for it as they would see players on MLB rosters lose jobs as would all the affiliated minor league teams. Throw in television contracts and the municipalities that host them suing MLB left, right, and sideways, and contraction is off the table.
No, Tampa Bay, you’re safe. But, that doesn’t mean you deserve the Rays. Only by luck are you keeping the team. If the opportunity to relocate or contract the club were available, as fast as you can say, “Bud Selig”, I’m betting they would. Fans in other markets would die to have a team as good as the Rays have been. Fans in other markets dream of an owner and GM the likes of which the Rays enjoy. Tampa Bay yawns, goes to bed early, or flips on a sitcom. The Rays may have some of the finest writers – both mainstream and new – covering them, but the ones that matter the most – the average fan – are below average. They just aren’t there.
In fairness, as with any market, there are passionate fans, and the Rays have some, just not enough to move the needle. Not enough to move those that are either transplants with their own allegiance that they brought with them, or a fan that has chose to support other pro sport options. Either way, talk of sustainability is going to be the soup de jour for some time.
There will be apologists that will use the location of The Trop. There are fans that will say it’s the economy. Horse pucky. If it were the economy, the television ratings wouldn’t have crashed harder than a rock falling from The Trop’s roof. And, even if the location is poor (and it is), at least the bandwagon would have shown up in the last week of the regular season, but they didn’t. A small core of rabid fans isn't enough. The market is in question.
Tampa Bay, your name is apathy. You are the last years of the Montreal Expos in terms of attendance with the team being 1994 before the strike (for the record, the Expos averaged 24,543 in the shortened 1994 season. The Rays in 2011 averaged 18,878). The ability to sustain these winning ways is fragile. The Rays show that they can win on a shoestring, but at some point, it won’t be as such.
Here’s to the Rays organization. You’re putting up with more than you should, but you have no choice, and that’s a pity. Mr. Sternburg should keep silent -- bite your tongue -- bashing your fan base isn't going to endear you. Leave that to the writers.
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, and is a contributor to Forbes SportsMoney blog.. He 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 (select his name in the dropdown provided).
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