Catching some Rays in Tampa Bay

Buried at the bottom of a recent Tampa Bay Times story about the Rays’ new marketing campaign was an unbelievable line. According to the article, the Rays are the most-watched pro sports team on television in Florida.

That’s right. The Rays. Not the Miami Dolphins. Not the Miami Heat. The Rays, a franchise that ranked dead last in major league attendance, averaging 19,255 fans a game last year despite fielding a winning team. The Phillies, the top-drawing team, averaged 44,021.

One step at a time, said Rays vice president of marketing Tom Hoof, a former marketing director at Disney.

“It’s a long-term build for sports fans down here,” he said. “When I got to the Trop in ‘06, we’d draw 70 percent Yankees and Red Sox fans for those games. Now it’s probably down to 30 percent.”

And getting statewide TV distribution was itself another huge step given where the organization was just a few years ago.

“I lived in Orlando for 17 years before I took this job, and the Rays were on in that market only 25 times a year,” says Hoof. “Our reach was nonexistent outside the Tampa Bay area.”

The team’s TV deal with Fox Sports in 2010 put 150 Rays games on the air across the state. Couple that with a winning team, and even the good good people of Orlando were compelled to tune in.

“I think last year, in Tampa, we had the eighth-best TV ratings in baseball, and in Orlando our ratings exceed the NHL Lightning’s,” said Hoof. “It shows that our fan base is growing there.”

You heard him. The Rays have a growing fan base. The problem is they don’t enjoy schlepping to St. Pete in rush-hour traffic.

“On the weekends, our attendance is at league average,” said Hoof. “So that attests to the location of the ballpark. It’s easier to get here when there’s no rush hour than it is on a Tuesday.”

Unfortunately, the Rays still have to play games during the week, which means it’s up to Hoof and his team to get fans to bite the bullet and drive to the Trop on a school night. Everything they’ve tried over the years has led naturally to the Rays’ latest marketing campaign.

Hoof says early on they just wanted to get fans interested in baseball. One tagline for billboard ads and TV spots, for instance, was, “Baseball is Beautiful.” Then, last year, they got a little more specific. The “Experience the Rays” campaign was all about assuring fans they’d have a good time at the Trop, win or lose.

“This year, I wanted to make more of an emotional connection between the fans and the players,” said Hoof. “When we were getting some quotes from the players last year, I noticed how much they love the team and how much they love the fans. I thought if we could expand on that and get deeper into it with the players and the fans, we’d really have something.”

The resulting “Welcome Home” campaign is designed to make fans feel more a part of the team’s success on the field. In one TV spot, Cy Young Award winner David Price says, “It's not just me on that Cy Young trophy. It is a little piece of everybody."

Sound hokey? Maybe, but Price has done plenty to make fans believe him. He is one of the most active major leaguers on Twitter. Through a steady stream of tweets and local TV appearances, Price has made his dog, Astro, nearly as famous as he is. Astro bobblehead night on April 21 probably will be the one weeknight the Rays get a good crowd.

For the rest of the season, it’s up to Hoof to get the Rays’ attendance to more accurately reflect the fan support they really have. Because at this point, most of them still find it easier to follow them on the tube.