By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
But as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays put a largely inexperienced lineup on the field in the season opener tonight, will all of that be enough to offset a meager payroll and reverse a steady, serious decline in ticket sales and attendance?
The team won't talk about 2003 ticket sales and suite renewals. But it's clear the challenges loom large, both on the field and in the team's marketing efforts. The Rays consistently have had one of the worst win-loss records in baseball since the team's inception in 1998. Last year, fewer than 9,000 people on average attended each game. Ticket sales slid 13 percent.
Can promotions such as a Lou Piniella bobblehead -- they'll give away 7,500 likenesses of the Tampa-born manager at the June 1 game against the Anaheim Angels -- bring back the crowds of the franchise's first few years?
"You have a fairly sophisticated fan base," said John McHale Jr., executive vice president of administration for Major League Baseball, who briefly worked for the Rays. "I think they're going to appreciate and enjoy watching Lou Piniella put an energetic team on the field. But eventually, they're going to have to win."
However, paring the payroll to the barest minimum appears to be one of the organization's primary goals this year, one the front office seems proud of achieving. How that will translate into winning -- and putting enough fans in chairs to keep the franchise financially healthy -- is a murky equation with lots of variables.
But it's a crucial equation. Attendance is important not only to the Rays' morale but to the franchise's future. Along with a slightly bigger piece of revenue sharing, a plan in which the richer teams contribute to the poorer ones, and national TV revenue, Naimoli has said this season's attendance will play a part in how much the team can spend next year to augment an onfield payroll that has been stripped to a paltry $15-million.
Including deferred salaries being paid to players who are no longer with the Rays, the payroll will be about $30-million this year. By comparison, last year's World Series champs, the Anaheim Angels, had a $61-million payroll, and this year the New York Yankees will spend a stratospheric $165-million.
Though the Rays have one of the more extreme combinations of low payroll, poor ticket sales and a dismal record, other teams are having problems, too. Ticket sales in Major League Baseball were down 6 percent across the board in 2002 over the previous year.
The situation has spawned a mantra of customer service from the commissioner's office on down. The Florida Marlins, which saw ticket sales wither by 36 percent, started a major public relations initiative this season. The owner of the team, Jeff Loria, has been out front, offering free hot dogs on opening day and promising to reconnect with fans.
Dan Migala, editor of industry publication Team Marketing Report, said respecting the fans and entertaining them, not just assuming they will come if you put a game on the field, is the way many teams are addressing the problem.
"Unfortunately, sometimes with major league teams, they think it's undignified," Migala said. "Let's face it, it's a game. It's entertainment."
After several reporters had stopped taking notes and moved on, another -- not a regular beat writer -- sat down next to Naimoli.
"I don't do interviews," he said, and stormed off. Not a question had been asked.
His public relations director asked what had happened, apologized repeatedly and said he would try to intervene. He tried, to no avail.
It is not atypical behavior for the mercurial Naimoli, who has been the ownership voice of the team since the expansion franchise began playing here five years ago.
His operation has offended on an equal opportunity basis, including attempting to charge admission to a high school marching band that was to play the national anthem at the field and singling out the host hotel at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon for failing to renew season tickets.
How much have Naimoli's outbursts affected ticket sales? Difficult to say. But they certainly have defined him, and to some extent the team.
Mike Veeck, the Rays' former marketing chief, said Naimoli is a good-hearted guy who "doesn't edit."
"It's a strange chip that was installed in his head," said Veeck, who now does promotions for the Detroit Tigers.
Naimoli has limited his public comments over the past few years. And the team's image may have been helped by a local public relations company, the Carter Group, that was hired to tout the team's good deeds in the community. Bob Carter, owner and president of the PR company, said the perception of Naimoli has been formed, in part, by a public that had no one else on whom to focus.
"Because we didn't have a big-name manager from the beginning, it was all Vince, Vince, Vince," Carter said.
Whatever Naimoli's impact, how people feel they're treated plays a large part in how they look at a sports organization. Just ask Larry Silver, spokesman for Raymond James Financial, which bought the naming rights for the football stadium where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play. Raymond James also is a Rays suite holder.
Though Silver didn't want to talk about Naimoli, he spoke enthusiastically about how he was treated recently when he went to see a Tampa Bay Lightning home game, where Raymond James has only a small sponsorship.
Staffers went out of their way make sure he had parking and to show him to his seat. And the team is a contender.
"You don't have to win them all," Silver said. "Unfortunately, the Devil Rays have not spent the money to put the team out there that will get you excited."
Wayne Hodes is earnest and hopeful -- and brand new to the Devil Rays.
The vice president for ticket sales, on the job for about a month, says this when asked what the team's ticket goals are this year:
"Our goal is to sell out every game, and certainly that's a lofty goal," said Hodes, who worked most recently for the New Orleans Saints football team and before that for minor league baseball teams. "Not even the New York Yankees or the L.A. Dodgers do that."
The Rays have sold out only sold out one game: the franchise's inaugural contest in 1998.
So realistically, what is the team hoping to see?
"We'd like to get back up to the numbers we had in the first couple, three years," Hodes said.
Back then, the team sold around 20,000 tickets to the average game, compared with 13,158 last year.
Sales for tonight's game seem to be a promising start. They have topped 30,000, said Rick Vaughn, the team's public relations vice president. That includes 10,000 tickets sold to SunTrust Bank, which plans to give the upper deck seats to teachers and school administrators, Vaughn said.
Reopening the upper deck is one of the things the team is doing to curry favor with fans, who were indignant when the area was closed for many of the games in 2002. The move, Vaughn said, was an effort to save money on salaries for ushers and security guards.
"There are a lot of good seats up there," Vaughn said. "And they're really cheap tickets. You can sit right behind home plate for five bucks."
Vaughn said that on Sundays and for value games (a dozen midweek contests against less popular teams), upper deck tickets for kids would cost $1.
"If this doesn't bring some kids in, I don't know what will," Vaughn said.
The organization is hoping that a new color scheme will combat the rap that the domed stadium is a boring place to see a ballgame.
The design, created to remind fans of a Florida sunrise, is a 12,390-square-feet reupholstering of field wall cushions and wall panels. Starting at field level, the colors will be blue and green, slowly making a transition to oranges and yellows at the top of the dome. Even the catwalks will sport wallpaper.
The team also plans to target niche markets, such as Hispanics and the military. They'll give out schedule magnets on opening day, baseball card sets a couple of times, a bottle fan mister a few times, some baseballs and perhaps about 500 beach towels on another occasion.
Bill Bunker, former executive director of the Pinellas Sports Authority, an agency that was formed to bring Major League Baseball to the area, said he has seen the team "pull every trick they could out of their bag.
"Unfortunately, nothing seems to work," he said. "But I'm not one who really thinks that ad campaigns and so forth really sell tickets."
Bunker wonders about whether certain factors hurt the Rays, such as the number of people who migrate to places such as North Carolina for the summer. And he curses what he says is the team's bad luck."You wouldn't think that everybody who comes in here would quit hitting and quit pitching," Bunker said.
The team, he safely predicted, isn't going to win 100 games this season. But it has to start putting up a better record.
"How many will be necessary to generate attention and fan enthusiasm? I don't know. That's the question, isn't it?"
-- Alicia Caldwell can be reached at Alicia@sptimes.com or (727)893-8145
Got ideas for the Rays?
Think you know how to get people out to see the Devil Rays? Wayne Hodes, the Rays' new vice president for ticket sales, said he welcomes fans' suggestions about how to draw people to Tropicana Field. Send in your ideas, and we'll share them. Contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them to Rays Ideas, St. Petersburg Times, Business News Dept., P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
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