In their seven seasons on the field, the Devil Rays have gone from happening, to novelty, to afterthought.
They have sold out just three of 562 home dates, drew more than 2-million fans only in their inaugural 1998 season, and last year drew 1.165-million in 77 home dates – about 500,000 fewer than the Kansas City Royals, next-worst in the American League.
“Promoting the Rays,” said University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson, “is not a job I would want to do.”
Blaming the on-field product is easy. Tampa Bay had its best season in 2004, and still won only 70 games. For the first time, it didn’t finish last in its division, but was 30 1/2 games behind the AL East champion Yankees, and 21 games under .500.
But there are those who say much of what inhibits the Rays is not simply a matter of balls and strikes; that the Tampa Bay market hinders the organization as much as ineptitude on the field or missteps by ownership and management.
Sports economists, marketing and advertising executives, former and current baseball executives, agents, community leaders and players say the Rays face:
–A metropolitan area without a population center, but plenty of subdivisions sprawling north into Pasco County and east in Hillsborough.
–A nondescript domed stadium, Tropicana Field, located in a not-yet-revived part of downtown St. Petersburg.
–A limit to entertainment dollars, pointing out Tampa Bay’s median after-tax household income of $35,780 is second-lowest of the 30 major-league markets.
–A population that in many cases has migrated from other parts of the country and still has fierce loyalties to former hometown teams.
–An annual spring training hangover.
And, they say, don’t forget the bridges – actual and emotional – that separate St. Petersburg from the rest of the Tampa Bay area.
Major League Baseball vice president John McHale, who spent 10 months in the Rays’ front office, said he has “no doubt” the community can support major league baseball. But he acknowledged that perhaps not enough attention was paid to the divide between St. Petersburg and Tampa, created by competition between the cities to build a stadium and land a team, before St. Petersburg was awarded the franchise 10 years ago this week.
“No one, for instance, in my position in 1995 could have understood the friendly rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg,” McHale said. “No one could have understood the frontiers the Howard Frankland Bridge presents. Those are issues we would have wanted to look at more carefully and would have wanted to discuss more thoroughly.”
While Not Sucking would be the most obvious way for the Devil Rays to attract a fan base, certain types of failure are more pathetic than others. Had the team struggled with a younger lineup initially, if nothing else, fans would be watching the organization develop talent. But to watch Jose Canseco, Vinnie Castilla, Wade Boggs Greg Vaughn and Wilson Alvarez lead the team to last place finishes is another thing entirely.
And being stuck in the AL East isn’t very helpful, either, though unavoidable.