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Tampa Bay Rays
Title track: 66
Fan relations: 39
Stadium experience: 115
Bang for the buck: 19
Change from last year: -10
It was a year of great change for the Tampa Bay Rays. Andrew Friedman, vice president of baseball operations, decided he'd had enough of balling on a budget and bolted for the big city -- and a bigger payroll -- heading to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Soon after, long-term field general Joe Maddon decided he, too, was ready to move on and took over as manager of the Chicago Cubs. Even with all the movement at the top of the franchise, the Rays' overall standings stayed relatively still.
The affordability of attending a Rays game is the chief reason the team remains in the top half of the standings. Tampa Bay ranks in the top 20 in both affordability and bang for the buck. The average ticket is about $7 below the league average and less than half the cost of a ticket for their AL East rivals in New York and Boston. In addition to ticket pricing, you are allowed to bring in your own food, stick around for free summer concerts and take home some of the best giveaways around. There is also a limited amount of free parking for those with four or more passengers -- the only franchise in all of sports that offers gratis parking.
Tampa Bay's biggest issue as a franchise remains the tether to the domed structure in South St. Petersburg, picked by fans as the second-worst stadium in all of sports. Even with concessions, attendance and promotions tied in, Tropicana Field provides one of the lowest stadium experiences, thanks to its cavernous appearance, dreadful acoustics and the occasional presence of a bat (not the kind made out of wood.) Of course, a bad stadium experience leads to bad attendance, which in turn impedes ownership ability and/or willingness to invest heavily in things like payroll. Regardless of cause and effect, fans are getting fed up with Stuart Sternberg, who dropped 20 places this year to 109th overall.
It isn't hard to believe that the Rays' most massive drop -- 56 places -- was a byproduct of losing one of the game's best managers. That shouldn't be seen as a reflection of Kevin Cash, who performed admirably in his maiden voyage, but it makes a difference to fans to lose such an iconic figure. On the field, too, the players have adapted impressively; the on-field product remained largely the same, and in fact the roster earned a 21-point jump this year. The franchise is still deep in young pitching and puts a premium on generating outs on defense. The limited payroll makes scoring runs difficult, but the club keeps on getting by thanks to its creative approach.