A Rays double play

Published May 17, 2007

Give Stuart Sternberg some credit. The Devil Rays' road show at Disney World is good for the Tampa Bay franchise's long-term future. The team's owner must build the business to build the team. Bringing the game to thousands of new fans in a big television market without baseball that's a manageable drive away from St. Petersburg is smart marketing.

Sternberg faces many challenges in putting more bodies in the stands at Tropicana Field. Chief among them is boosting the payroll - at $23-million, the league's lowest - to field a more competitive team. In that sense, playing to some empty seats at a spring training stadium in Lake Buena Vista might seem like a distraction, even a waste of time. But it sent a bold message to an untapped market and to fans back home about the Rays' determination to cultivate a loyal following. As the St. Petersburg Times' John Romano reported Wednesday, the Rays have increased their TV package of games in the Central Florida market. Ratings are up, which Romano reports the team attributes to the three-game Disney series.

The Rays are merely the latest institution to realize that moving forward requires a regional approach. Governments throughout the Tampa Bay area have figured this out and now talk of the need to think regionally in managing our economy and our resources, from universities to roads to water. Baseball is a business competing for a limited pot of entertainment dollars and time. Sternberg has made strides by focusing first on improving the fan experience at Tropicana Field and then taking the game to new and emerging markets within easy driving distance. Who knows whether the experiment will work in the short-term; winning Tuesday's opener sure didn't hurt. But playing a handful of home games in Central Florida is a worthwhile experiment.

Tampa Bay has a lot invested in the success of the Devil Rays, from public money to civic pride. One of the keys to the team's long-term success - besides better relief pitching - will be to build it into a truly regional franchise.