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Devil Rays 1995-2005: What went wrong?

Fans as scarce as wins

The Tampa Bay market was supposed to be ripe for baseball, but filling Tropicana Field has proven more difficult than expected.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published March 7, 2005

[Times photo: Michael Rondou 2001]
Empty seats are a prominent part of the Rays experience; the team has had three sellouts in history and was last in the AL in attendance last season.

What went wrong? Devil Rays 1995-2005
Recent St. Petersburg development
Best place for a baseball stadium?
Photo gallery

What went wrong: What the fans say
400 telephone interviews conducted from Feb. 2 – 12, 2005, from randomly chosen households in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco and Pinellas counties of people who describe themselves as “baseball fans.”

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Is anyone watching?
The Devil Rays are hoping to rebuild their attendance. Here is how they have drawn for games at Tropicana Field.

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Through their first seven seasons, the Rays stack up as one of the least successful expansion teams in baseball history. Here are the seven year records.

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A big reason the Devil Rays can’t compete with the Yankees on the field is that they aren’t even in the same ballpark in terms of payroll. Here is a look at how the disparity has grown over the years.

In their seven seasons on the field, the Devil Rays have gone from happening, to novelty, to afterthought.

They have sold out just three of 562 home dates, drew more than 2-million fans only in their inaugural 1998 season, and last year drew 1.165-million in 77 home dates - about 500,000 fewer than the Kansas City Royals, next-worst in the American League.

"Promoting the Rays," said University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson, "is not a job I would want to do."

Blaming the on-field product is easy. Tampa Bay had its best season in 2004, and still won only 70 games. For the first time, it didn't finish last in its division, but was 30 1/2 games behind the AL East champion Yankees, and 21 games under .500.

But there are those who say much of what inhibits the Rays is not simply a matter of balls and strikes; that the Tampa Bay market hinders the organization as much as ineptitude on the field or missteps by ownership and management.

Sports economists, marketing and advertising executives, former and current baseball executives, agents, community leaders and players say the Rays face:

--A metropolitan area without a population center, but plenty of subdivisions sprawling north into Pasco County and east in Hillsborough.

--A nondescript domed stadium, Tropicana Field, located in a not-yet-revived part of downtown St. Petersburg.

--A limit to entertainment dollars, pointing out Tampa Bay's median after-tax household income of $35,780 is second-lowest of the 30 major-league markets.

--A population that in many cases has migrated from other parts of the country and still has fierce loyalties to former hometown teams.

--An annual spring training hangover.

And, they say, don't forget the bridges - actual and emotional - that separate St. Petersburg from the rest of the Tampa Bay area.

Major League Baseball vice president John McHale, who spent 10 months in the Rays' front office, said he has "no doubt" the community can support major league baseball. But he acknowledged that perhaps not enough attention was paid to the divide between St. Petersburg and Tampa, created by competition between the cities to build a stadium and land a team, before St. Petersburg was awarded the franchise 10 years ago this week.

"No one, for instance, in my position in 1995 could have understood the friendly rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg," McHale said. "No one could have understood the frontiers the Howard Frankland Bridge presents. Those are issues we would have wanted to look at more carefully and would have wanted to discuss more thoroughly."

Optimists say such obstacles can be overcome by savvy marketing, advertising, public relations and customer service. And Dave Auker, the Rays' senior vice president of business operations, said the team recently completed an extensive fan-research project to help determine better strategies.

Most effective is winning. The Bucs and Lightning play in Tampa venues with all sorts of access and parking issues, yet the Lightning said 31 percent of its season-ticket accounts are in Pinellas County.

Which is why player agent Jim Krivacs, who lives in Palm Harbor, said the Tampa Bay area cannot yet be judged as a baseball market.

"They've never experienced what happens when a team wins 90 games," Krivacs said of the fans. "Until you do that for a few years, you'll never know what kind of market this is. You can't evaluate it."

But Bill Giles, the Phillies chairman who was on the expansion committee that awarded the Rays, said, "As I reflect back on it, it seems like reading the papers and talking to people down there, they certainly seem to have more interest in football and auto racing than they do baseball. That's just the sense I get."

Giles' fears seem confirmed by a Times phone survey of 400 Tampa Bay area residents who describe themselves as baseball fans. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they are not Rays fans.

Ten years after the Rays were awarded, only 28 percent consider them their favorite team.Spring training, whose popularity was one reason major league baseball was supposed to flourish here, might not be a factor after all. Of the 45 percent who said in the poll they were not planning to attend a Rays game this season, 80 percent said they had no plans to attend a spring game.

Considering that backdrop, the Rays' increase last season of 2,059 in average attendance might be considered hopeful.

"The area is a very good baseball market," commissioner Bud Selig said. "I think our judgment was right. Sometimes in life, struggles go on. In the end, they just need to concentrate on their plan."

Still, it's not exactly what baseball had in mind.

Mind over matter

When the Rays were awarded to Tampa Bay in March 1995, Sarasota businessman Bill Griffin looked for clues to reveal how the team would be accepted.

The Marlins, based in north Miami-Dade County, had drawn a combined 5-million fans in their first two seasons. But it was Colorado Rockies that really grabbed the attention of Griffin and the other members of the Rays' ownership group.

In its first two seasons, Colorado had drawn a combined 7,701,861 fans to 80,000-seat Mile High Stadium, an average of 57,051.

"I don't think anybody expected the amount of hype that occurred in Denver," Griffin, who is no longer a partner, said recently. "I mean, they sold out a football stadium, you know, and it was like, if we could do half that, the revenue numbers would work.

"So that's what drove expectations, and those expectations were not met. But there isn't anyone or any thing or any event that would suggest every effort wasn't put forward to create an atmosphere that would generate that kind of enthusiasm."

St. Petersburg's push for major league baseball really began in 1982 when the city decided to build the Florida Suncoast Dome, now Tropicana Field, in the Gas Plant district.

It was a decisive move, former city councilman Bill Bond Jr. said recently, because the belief was a functioning stadium was needed for a franchise to be awarded. It also was part of the city's far-reaching redevelopment plan.

"The Pier was being redone, the Bayfront Center, the Vinoy (hotel)," Bond said. "The stadium was kind of the west end of downtown and with the other projects east, we felt all would feed off one another and lead to better things to come."

Whether you believed the stadium would be better in a more central location 1/3 Tampa, northern Pinellas or, as the joke went, on a barge in Tampa Bay - the market seemed primed.Spring training for the Yankees, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Phillies was popular in 1994. The Rays moved into Progress Energy Park in '98, when the Cardinals left.

But Bob Leffler, whose advertising agency worked with the Rays from 1999 to 2002, said spring training was his biggest headache.

"Until the Rays get good, they have to sell other teams," Leffler said. "So, would you rather see the Yankees in pinstripes at Legends Field in preseason and get autographs if you're a big Yankee fan? Or would you rather go to a home game at Tropicana, indoors with road uniforms?"

Leffler painted a daunting picture. He said if the other six teams that hold spring training in the area (Yankees in Tampa, Phillies in Clearwater, Blue Jays in Dunedin, Reds in Sarasota, Pirates in Bradenton and Tigers in Lakeland) do about $300,000 in advertising and trade per spring, that's $1.8-million lined up against Tampa Bay.

"I'm not saying each does that, but that's what they should be able to do," Leffler said. "There's a lot of pressure on these teams to sell out spring training. (The area) is a hotbed, but it's a hotbed in the selling season, so you'd better guarantee they'll win. But you can't guarantee that."

Jim Matthews, president and CEO of Matthews, Evans and Albertazzi, the San Diego firm that helped the Rays with its fan research, said those interviewed extolled the area's heritage and major league stars.

"It's dynamic that you guys have so much baseball," Matthews said.And that, he added, is where you start to build.

Is it fixable?

Mike Veeck knows a thing or two about promoting baseball, and the Devil Rays. His late father, Bill, was one of the game's legendary owners and showmen. Mike was the Rays' vice president of sales and marketing. He resigned in May 1999 after eight months on the job.Veeck said catering to fans is a constant.

"I believe fans are discerning," he said. "There's no question (the Rays) have a disadvantage with Tropicana Field, but that's all the more reason to romance the business community, romance the fans, take more time with each individual fan, each individual advertiser."

Auker said that is why the Rays got together with Matthews' firm, which last year conducted e-mail surveys and met with focus groups of baseball and Rays fans.

One result: Auker wants to bring more families into the Trop by marketing to moms.

"In the summer, they are the social gatekeepers, and baseball ranks high because of its affordability relative to other sports and the ballpark experience," he said. "They feel it's a comfortable, safe environment to bring the family, have a hot dog and do the Cracker Jack thing."

Auker said player interaction with fans will increase this season, and areas of interactive games will be available on Rightfield Street under the stands in case kids gets "antsy" watching the Rays play.

Rays players already are regularly out and about in the community. Auker said the organization is expanding its baseball field renovation program for communities in need, part of a three-pronged formula in which the team also focuses on community needs in wellness and education.

And while Leffler's opinion is spring training adversely affects the Rays, Matthews called it an opportunity, especially when it wraps up.

"Everybody's got a bug, so you say, "Now the real show starts,"' Matthews said. "When it comes down to it, the Devil Rays are the only game in town. The people from Cleveland, Chicago, New York are transplants. They're walking that line with the Yankees, or falling in love with the Devil Rays."

The key is advertising. Leffler said the most effective media blitz would include Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

"If you really want to buy the market, you have five mutually exclusive newspapers you have to buy," he said. "If you want to market the right way, you probably have to buy 12, 13 radio stations. And there is a massive amount of (signage) outdoors."

Auker said the Rays advertise and promote most heavily in a 60-mile radius from St. Petersburg.

"Within the 60 miles, you are going to see the billboards, use print, TV and radio within that area," he said. "That's not to say the person 75 miles out is going to be ignored, you just have to be a little more targeted with your efforts."

The best advertising? Victories. In the Times survey, 51 percent of respondents said the Rays don't draw more fans because "the team doesn't win enough."

--Times staff writer Marc Topkin and Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 7, 2005, 05:42:50]

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