Tampa Rays Attendance Just Fine

Not many teams win a division and finish in the bottom five in attendance in the same season. Tampa Bay is on pace to do that – and they should be ecstatic with the numbers. Rome was not built in a day – Rays fans can attest to that. Using average per game attendance and percent capacity as indicators, Tampa is up over 25% per game from last season, approximately a 10% capacity increase. Those numbers deserve applause, both for the teams improvement and the fans for coming out.

The last time Tampa didn’t finish last in percent capacity, the Expos still existed. Standing 26 out of 30 doesn’t sound like an accomplishment until its compared to finished a distant 30th each season.

Last week star pitcher Scott Kazmir criticized fans for not turning out for a first place team embroiled in a pennant race. Critics argued Tampa-St. Pete does not deserve a professional team because they don’t support it. Timeout, hold the bus. The Rays were a disaster since their inception, never finished above .500, and only topped 70 wins once. Ownership didn’t spend smart, the stadium stinks, the franchise was a laughingstock. Meanwhile, its expansion-mate Arizona paraded to a World Series and subsequent playoff appearances and down state the Marlins won a title. Rays fans got the middle-finger for the first ten years of the franchise.

It takes more than 5 months to undo ten years of damage. Players, management, and critics need to remain patient. The team should – and observing how their new management operates, they will – view this as a stepping stone to catapult attendance next season and going forward. Come playoff time, fans will sell out The Trop, more than some other teams can boast (ahem, Atlanta).

They will finish with by far the biggest year over year attendance increase. Instead of spewing negativity, commend fans for not throwing the towel in on the franchise. Commend fans for showing up at a god awful stadium that has no right housing a professional team, or any team for that matter. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is a brand or a franchise. Ten years of damage take more than a few months to overcome. Hold judgement until playoff time and next years season ticket sales. Things are heading up in Tampa.

Winning Gets the Turnstiles Moving and TV’s Tuning

More confirmation that new stadiums are not the end all to generating the revenue franchise’s need to compete in baseball, the surprising Tampa Rays, a top the ultra-competitive AL East have seen a 10% jump in attendance through the first half of the season. And attendance numbers show it typically takes fans until later in the season, if not the next season, to catch on to a team’s new found success. Basically, expect attendance at the Trop to keep rising.

Did the Rays get a new stadium? No, in fact, they delayed pursuing financing for that new waterfront ballpark. Tampa made no blockbuster acquistions in the off-season, fielding a team with nary an All-Star. Ownership’s biggest off-seas change was dropping “Devil” off the team’s moniker and changing the logo – perhaps good karma.

Recent series with the Red Sox and Cubs traveling road shows helped boost attendance, but Rays fans also tuned in, making the Red Sox games the most watched in Rays history. Fox is now considering Tampa for a pair of national television appearances later this season, exposure never before seen in Northern Florida after Spring Training.

The Rays did it by rebuilding the brand, appealing to the fans, and building a winner by making smart moves. Perhaps no team had more bad equity to overcome, so if Tampa can do it any team can do it.

The attendance theorm works both ways. In San Francisco, subtract Barry Bonds, subtract a pennant race, subtract 10% from attendance, even with arguably the best ballpark in baseball. Losing in San Diego has led to a double-digit percentage attendance decrease. Despite a big off-season acquisition, baseball’s biggest disappointment, Seattle, another team with a new, beautiful stadium, has seen attendance plummet to its lowest levels.

Winning makes everything easy, the hard part are putting fans in the seats when the team is not winning. Teams continue to try all sorts of creative ways to draw crowds. Loaded tickets (tickets that include free food) have been modestly successful, promotions and giveaways help bring kids to the stadium, however they lose their luster if you have promotions every night. Teams have reverted to showing movies on the jumbotron after the game, fireworks displays, and more.

Teams need to develop a few events that draw well, and occur annually, and I’m not talking about the old-fashioned bat day and cap day. Is it time for entertainment in baseball? Basketball has pyrotechnics before games, football has outlandish halftime shows, maybe baseball teams could trot out a music act on tour in the local area to perform one song before the game. The game becomes secondary, but fans will come.

Improving interactivity at the stadium through new technology is a more effective way to draw fans, then make sure they enjoy the experience and come back. Start with wireless access, add in a few creative text-message contests and promotions. Next comes mobile video, allow fans in the stadiums to watch replays (if MLBAM rights allow it), and provide access to view the stadium from various cameras, for example, a fan can check out the camera in the bullpen to see what’s going on. Control it by limiting access to the wireless network in the ballpark, so users have to be at the stadium to enjoy it. Open a forum for fan interaction, so they can argue about a bad call, or tell everyone to check out that guy in Section 41 who caught two home run balls.

Give fans the option to opt-in for special concession and merchandise promotions. At various times during the game, send a text alert for a discount or special at a particular concessionaire. It could say the first 10 fans to the food stand outside Section 8 get a free hotdog and soda, or the shop in the lower level in left field will sell all caps for 10% off during the 7th inning. Better yet, make users place the orders through the phone, then go pick it up. Teams can collect more valuable information, demographic data.

The key is to keep the fans that do come, coming back, and build buzz. Winning does it for some teams, others need to give incentives off the field.

Small Market Teams Make Smart Risks With Recent Contracts

New stadiums, superstar players, winning seasons, even championships will never be enough for the Milwaukee Brewers or Tampa Bay Rays to compete with the New York’s and Boston’s of the world in revenue, and subsequently payroll. To compete with the free-spending big market teams, sans salary cap in baseball, smaller market teams must make smart business decisions and take calculated risks. The latest fad – locking up young players to long-term contracts – continued in a big way last week.

Milwaukee signed Ryan Braun, 153 games into his career, to a club-record seven-year, $43M contract, on the heels of Hanley Ramirez’ 6 year, $70M deal with Florida. Early career long term contracts work benefit both parties, the player in the short term, the team in the long term. The deals work because each side accepts risk. Players trade potentially millions of dollars in each of three arbitration years, and occasionally their first year or two of free agency, for guaranteed money. In arbitration, players must perform at a high level each year to earn pay increases. However, those that do perform stand to earn in excess of $10M, last seasons record set by Ryan Howard for a first year arbitration case. On the flip side, players will earn under $1M for their first three seasons, and have no guarantee that they will avoid injury, or eventually wind up back in the minor leagues before arbitration time rolls around. These contracts secure a healthy payout, substantially higher in the first three years, and guaranteed throughout the years of arbitration no matter how they perform.

Teams accept the risk that a Braun may flame out after two seasons, and become another Kevin Maas or Angel Berroa, a flash in the pan that winds up out of baseball in three years. If that’s the case, Milwaukee still owes him six years. Conversely, if Braun continues his success path, Milwaukee will never go through the usually acrimonious arbitration process, remaining on good terms with Braun. They stand to save money on the back end of the contract, when All-Star caliber arbitration players will earn more than the $6.5M average salary in Braun’s contact. The Brewers also built predictability into their payroll, allowing the team to sign other free agents down the line, without the unknown of what Ryan Braun will earn year to year during arbitration.

This season we have seen an explosion of teams buying out arbitration years on young, potential stars with long-term contracts. Arizona inked Chris Young, the Rockies locked up Troy Tulowitzki, and Tampa signed both Evan Longoria and Scott Kazmir in the past few weeks. At least one, if not more, of these players is bound to fail, or at least not live up to expectations. The reason teams can take the risk is at an affordable $5-7M per season, the contract does not cripple the team, the way a Barry Zito or Jason Giambi contract can.

Inevitably, rumors circulate that the union is not pleased with these contracts because player’s are selling themselves short, leaving money on the table. However, it’s not nearly as bad as they make it seem. In fact, these contracts are the similar to the big money contracts of earlier this decade, except teams front-load the money on these deals. Previously, a player’s salary would escalate each season, reaching exorbitant fees in the final season. These contracts are front-loaded because players will earn $5-$7M, or more depending on the player and contract, in the pre-arbitration seasons when they would typically earn under $1M. If they continue to blossom players will earn less than market rate at the end of the contract, a give and take. Not as one sided as the players association tends to believe.

Cleveland laid the ground work in the early to mid 1990’s, locking up Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Charles Nagy, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez, to name a few, for the better part of the decade. The team grew together into a perennial playoff team that earned two World Series appearances. It took teams almost a decade to catch on, but they finally understand its the best way to control costs and compete with the big boys.

Teams still need to spend on payroll to win, Pittsburgh and Kansas City listen closely, just not exorbitantly. In other walks of life, its called good business. Secure young players, reward them, use the money you save to surround them with affordable role players, and make a big mid-season trade when the opportunity to win presents itself.

By putting money into the business, it inherently helps the bottom line. Better players leads to more wins and a sense the team is trying to win, both of which put more fans in seats and sell more merchandise. Further, securing franchise type players to long term deals allows the marketing department to build campaigns around players, and build a brand strong enough to weather a downturn on the field. Essentially, baseball teams are creating a self-regulated salary cap. Big spenders, like the Yankees and Mets, are feeling the pain of haphazardly throwing big money at free agents – see Carl Pavano, Giambi, Carlos Delgado (trade), and Mo Vaugn, to go back a few years, as examples. This proves a ceiling exists where overspending can hurt a team. Meanwhile, the recent success of Minnesota, Cleveland, and Oakland to name a few, show teams need to spend some money to compete, proving a salary basement exists. Outrageously low payrolls will not only never compete, they will not make money in the long run.

Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Tampa, and Milwaukee spent smartly, and will reap the benefits over the next few seasons. The more smaller to mid market teams that follow this business model will lead to further parity in baseball, and the years where only half the teams have a chance at the playoffs, and the Yankees make it each season will disappear.

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.

Rays Spending Wisely

When Tampa Bay sent uber-prospect Evan Longoria down to AAA to start the season, eyes rolled. Here we go again, Tampa acting cheap by holding back players in the minors to delay arbitration eligible years, and eventual free agent years. They did the same with Delmon Young a few years back. A tactic that only creates animosity with the player, and creates an image for the entire league about what type of franchise the Rays are.

Surprisingly, by April 12th Longoria found himself starting at 3B, batting third, against the Baltimore Orioles. By the end of the week he had a six-year contract in hand. Talk about turning over a new leaf. The same team scoffed for preventing players from coming to the majors so they can avoid doling out the cash gives an unproven prospect a six year contract in under a week.

The 6-year, $17.5 million pact gives Longoria guaranteed money right through his arbitration eligible seasons, while Tampa locks in a potential star at what may look like bargain basement annual salaries by the time Longoria reaches years five and six, each valued at $11.5 million. Ryan Howard recently garnered $10 million in arbitration, and he’s not even close to year 5 and 6 yet. Not to put that expectation on Longoria, widely considered the top prospect in baseball, but if he evolves into the player most expect the Rays will surely be paying below market value on this contract.

After years of bad free agent signings – remember Vinny Castillo and Greg Vaughn – new owner Stuart Sternberg and General Manager Andrew Friedman finally have the Rays headed in the right direction. In addition to Longoria, Carlos Pena is signed for three seasons, up and coming pitcher James Sheilds is locked up for four years, the club holds options on Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, Japanese import Akinori Iwamura is signed through 2009 with a 2010 club option, and last years top draft pick David Price has a six year deal. Next on the list CF BJ Upton and lefty starter Scott Kazmir, both approaching free agency. With a solid, young nucleus in place, combined with an influx of young pitching on the way from the minors, the Rays are ready to compete.

At slightly over $43 million, Tampa’s 2008 payroll ranks next to last in baseball, only above the Marlins – not much of an accomplishment – but moves like the Longoria signing prove Tampa is committed to winning and heading the right direction. Following the model Cleveland used in the mid-1990’s, buying out the arbitration years on young players to control costs while keeping a young team together, Tampa has taken a calculated risk with a high reward. They are well-positioned to improve each year, possibly compete for a playoff as soon as next season.