Rays need to get out of Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay Rays must be moved. The Rays’ barely tenable existence in St. Petersburg, Fla., is getting worse and it’s becoming, to borrow a word from star pitcher David Price in describing a critical but sparsely attended game late last season, “embarrassing.” This is not about assigning blame. The Rays have some passionate and supportive fans. There are simply not enough of them. The franchise has done the best it can with a suffocating stadium lease. The past three seasons have been the most successful in Rays’ history, but those seasons have produced no attendance momentum. In fact, Rays attendance figures and local television ratings this season are in decline. Baseball needs to lower its rope and let the Rays climb out of their sinkhole.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, through the team’s communications office, declined an interview request. Sternberg did tell the Tampa Tribune earlier this month, “I know we can’t sustain ourselves like this. It hasn’t gotten better. If anything, it’s worse.” Sternberg added, “To run a payroll like we do now, basically the second-lowest in baseball, and barely keep our nose above water, we can’t sustain that.” Sternberg doesn’t often speak publicly about his team’s pressing stadium issue, instead leaving that to competing politicians on both sides of the bay. Sternberg did, however, tell the St. Petersburg Times in March that “nothing dramatic” is happening regarding a new stadium for the Rays and warned, “Baseball is just not going to stand for it anymore. And they’ll find a place for me. They won’t find a place here though.” Nor should they.

Last season, the Rays won 96 games and the AL East title. The organization put a superb product on the field but may have hit an attendance plateau with an average of 23,025 fans per game, which put it at ninth in the 14-team American League and 22nd in all of baseball. Last July, an impressive 70.9 percent jump in local TV ratings, as reported by Sports Business Journal, was used as an argument that the fans were there but were simply choosing to watch from home. This season, however, fewer locals are watching -- either from box seats or Barcaloungers. The Rays are currently last in the AL in attendance, averaging 18,485 fans per game, the second-worst attendance average in baseball, ahead of only the Marlins. That’s a drop of more than 5,000 fans per game from 2010. Rays viewership on Sun Sports, as reported by Tampa Bay Online last month, was down 34 percent and on average had dropped by about 30,000 households in the Tampa Bay area through the same point last year, according to Nielsen figures.

The Sternberg ownership group has worked tirelessly to repackage the product. A marketing campaign was launched around a new name, logo and color scheme and the ballpark was spruced up with as much cosmetic change as architecture would allow. The organization made fan friendliness a priority and maintained affordable ticket prices. In fact, in its annual “Best Franchises In Sports” rankings released last week, ESPN The Magazine determined the Rays offer the most “Bang for the Buck” among all 30 major league teams and ranked the Rays as the second most affordable team in professional sports behind only the Angels. If such an exciting team is also baseball's best bargain, then why are the games so sparsely attended? One answer can be found in that same poll, which rated the Rays 111th out of 122 professional franchises for "stadium experience."

Tropicana Field is located in St. Petersburg, in Pinellas County. To get there, the bulk of the Tampa Bay area’s population must fight through downtown Tampa’s rush-hour traffic only to arrive at a bridge bottleneck trying to make the three-mile journey across the bay to downtown St. Petersburg. “Murder” is how one area baseball fan described the commute to me, all to get to a ballpark that is hardly one of baseball’s crown jewels. A more appealing ballpark built on the Tampa side of the bay, in Hillsborough County, has long been considered the best solution, but the Rays are committed to gloomy Tropicana Field through 2027 and St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster, according to an April 1 story in the St. Petersburg Times, has refused to grant the Rays permission to explore other potential stadium sites in the Tampa Bay area. On June 9, Foster told the paper, “The Rays aren’t going to Tampa or Hillsborough County,” adding that if anybody on the Tampa side of the bay "wants to keep the Rays in the region, then they need to drive over here and support the team in St. Petersburg.” A majority of fans have clearly shown they're not willing to do that, but some numbers also suggest a new park in Tampa may not be the answer, either.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the NFL’s most exciting teams in 2010, going 10-6. The Bucs were also the only NFL team to have all eight of its home games blacked out on local television and the only team to see a double-digit attendance drop, down a staggering 24.9 percent from 2009 to just 49,314 fans, according to Sports Business Daily. Even the almighty NFL is not immune in Tampa, apparently.

The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning came within one game of the Stanley Cup finals. After three seasons of declining attendance, the Lightning's playoff run boosted ticket sales to 17,268 per game, but still good enough for only 18th out of 30 NHL teams. With the housing market still struggling, the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation reported the Tampa Bay area’s unemployment rate was 10.5 percent last month. However, an AWI economist pointed out that if that number included underutilized workers, those limited to part-time jobs, the unemployment rate would be more than 18 percent. With an erratic economy, a unique geography that can make for challenging commutes, a population that’s in large part either elderly or transient and limited corporate sponsorship possibilities, where is the fan base from which to draw and compete?

The Wall Street Journal reported that Minnesota’s Target Field cost $545 million, with taxpayers in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County responsible for $350 million of that bill. In addition, a retractable roof, such as the one the Rays would need to avoid the Florida heat and rain, would have cost the Twins another $200 million. The Tropicana Field lease coupled with a new ballpark’s high price tag and the lack of another viable, major league-ready market to which the Rays could move, have all created a painful stall that can’t last much longer. As Sternberg told the St. Petersburg Times in February, “Every year that goes by increases the possibility that we won’t be here. If there is something inevitable, you have to deal with it. At some point, my partners in baseball are going to throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘enough is enough.’”

Aren’t the Rays at that point now? Through 36 home games, the Rays have drawn more than 20,000 fans just 16 times and only on either weekends or when the Red Sox or Yankees are in town. One three-game series against the defending AL champion Rangers averaged 13,570 fans per game. Another against the Blue Jays drew an average of 11,009 fans. The Rays’ average attendance of 18,485 fans per game is less than half what the Red Sox draw every time Fenway Park’s gates open and more than 25,000 fewer than the Yankees average every home game. When you then consider the Rays' lack of a cash cow regional sports network, such as NESN in Boston or YES in New York, you wonder how the franchise can ever hope to sustain any long-term success while in such direct competition. This season the Rays cut their Opening Day payroll by $30 million, down to just more than $41 million, the second-lowest in baseball ahead of only the Royals. Ticket prices are already at a minimum. Established veterans have been allowed to leave simply because the Rays could not afford to keep them. There is nothing left to cut.

Again: This is not about assigning blame. Nobody is a bad person for not attending a baseball game. Even with 30 new ballparks one major league team would still have to be last in attendance, and even with a new stadium on the Tampa side, there is nothing to suggest that team wouldn’t be the Rays. The Tampa Bay area is a great place. It just hasn’t been a great place for Major League Baseball to do business.

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN