“It’s the economy, stupid.”
James Carville, the political consultant to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign against George Bush the elder, hung those immortal words outside the Little Rock campaign headquarters in 1992. And that’s what some folks in the Tampa Bay area would have you believe is the reason the Rays clinched their second playoff berth in three years before a “crowd” of 17,891 last Tuesday night, the day after only 12,446 showed up for Monday’s potential clincher.
Let’s state the obvious and get it out of the way. The U.S. economy is in the tank, and Florida has been affected as much as any state in the union. People at every income level are suffering - from the loss of jobs, the collapse of the real estate market, and perhaps most of all, the uncertain future.
What those folks who blame the economy are loath to admit is that Tampa Bay, indeed the state of Florida, wasn’t much of a baseball market even before the economy collapsed. Anyone who says otherwise is either oblivious to reality or an economics professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Which some folks may argue is one and the same.
Philip Potter, the aforementioned professor, told the St. Pete Times that, “We might be a lot better baseball market than people realize, but we don’t have the history.” Potter went on to state that the Rays are seventh in attendance when adjusting for the region’s population. “There are so many things to do in Florida. We get outside, go to the beach, so we’re not as easily seduced by baseball as somewhere else.”
Potter’s statements don’t prove that Tampa Bay is a good baseball market, but they do prove economists can twist statistics to prove virtually anything. If I was Potter, I wouldn’t be waiting breathlessly by the phone for a call from Rays’ owner Stuart Sternberg asking if he would conduct an economic study on the viability of baseball in Tampa Bay.
After two of the team’s star players, third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher David Price, publicly vented their frustration over the sea of empty seats at home games, the Rays announced they would give away 20,000 free tickets to their last regular season home game the day after they clinched. Fans gobbled up the free ducats in less than 90 minutes.
Marketing 101 suggests it’s seldom a good idea to give your product away for free and the Rays were criticized in some circles for doing just that. But the only potential downside in this instance is the risk of offending the team’s season ticket holders who had already paid for their tickets. Rays’ management addressed that issue by sending a letter to season ticket holders advising them the giveaway was a one-shot deal that wouldn’t be repeated. And the team can make it up to their season ticket holders in any number of ways - a free concession item, free parking, discounts on souvenirs, etc.
While millionaire ballplayers are best advised to avoid berating fans who may be struggling to make ends meet, the team’s frustration is understandable. Half-empty ballparks aren’t the norm for winning teams, unless they’re located in places like San Diego – or Tampa Bay. Rays players are reminded of that when they head north to play their American League East Division rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox. On those occasions, the stands are full. Applying Professor Potter’s logic - if you can call it that - there apparently aren’t many other things to do in New York and Boston except go to the ballpark.
There’s no doubt the economy has had an adverse affect on the Rays attendance, as it has for MLB teams in other markets. But the fact the Rays averaged 16,233 per game in the nine years after their inaugural season, and only 22,810 the last three years when they have been one of the best teams in all of baseball, indicates there are other factors in play here besides the putrid economy. Perhaps the best evidence of that is the fact the Rays had 20,000 tickets to give away in a facility with a capacity of 36,973.
The major reason for the sickly attendance in Tampa Bay is this: It’s simply a bad baseball market.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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