Rays Fans Need to See More

Two months of good play does not make up for ten years of ineptitude, at least according to Tampa Bay Rays fans. Surprisingly atop the competitive AL East, ahead of mighty Boston and New York, Tampa ranks 27th in MLB attendance, next to last in the AL.

Local and national media have criticized Rays fans this week for not supporting the club, now that its winning. That’s ludicrous. Rome was not built in a day. Tampa fans have suffered for ten seasons with winning more than 70 games. It took a disastrous season by another team to get them out of last place. Baseball experts widely believe Tampa is on the right track, locking up young talent to long-term deals, a distant change from the previous management regime, it takes more than a few good management decisions and 43 games to erase ten seasons of misery. Ten years of watching the team haphazardly sign free-agent busts – Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco, and Greg Vaughn to name a few – then become too cheap to call-up a minor league player because they are afraid he’ll reach arbitration and free agency sooner.

All indications are Stuart Sternberg and Andrew Friedman have the team setup to compete in the next few years. If they succeed fans will come back. The Rays averaged over 30,000 fans per game in their inaugural 1998 season, and have a strong fan base to draw from. Since that season the team has dragged fans through the mud, nine last place finishes, three 100-loss seasons, trading away young talent, cutting payroll, and not just losing – failing to compete. Fans have no reason to flock to the ballpark quite yet, they will if things continue. Missouri may be the “Show Me” state, but the moniker applies to sports attendance.

The best comparison is this seasons New Orleans Hornets. They had Chris Paul and David West before the season started. However, a strong start did not lead to box office returns, the Hornets, in their first season back in New Orleans, sat near the bottom of the league in attendance. Paul becomes an MVP candidate, the team continues to play at a high level, enters the playoff chase, and voila – sell outs. Tampa may not have a player at Chris Paul’s level yet – a few have that potential – and they may not win its division this season, nonetheless remaining competitive into and through the All-Star game will almost certainly push average attendance over 20,000 for the first time since 1998.

Lest we forget Tampa plays in a stadium that belongs at the Kennedy Science Center. The city and team have publicly debated funding a new stadium, tentatively slated to open on the waterfront. Until then, Tropicana Field ranks among the worst baseball stadiums around. Some minor league facilities are nicer. Fans are fickle, but they do have good memories. This team has treated its fans terrible. A bad product on the field, bad facility to watch games, poor PR – bad, bad, bad.

Winning solves most teams problems. Building a strong brand is more important. Give fans a reason to like the team, incentive to come to the park. Create a positive experience, a challenge in the modern supernova of a stadium they have, the only place that plays like a schoolyard with different ground rules. Hey, good idea for giveaways, now that I think about it.

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