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Solutions for Rays not easy

Naimoli has made missteps, but the stadium, team quality appear to be among larger trouble spots.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


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ST. PETERSBURG -- The news of the day was the apparent palace coup being plotted by the general partners of the Devil Rays against managing general partner Vince Naimoli. On the same day, but in less prominent fashion, was the news Tuesday night that the Rays had drawn the smallest crowd in franchise history.

Are those news items related beyond a fluke of timing? Is Naimoli at fault for the community's ever-growing disinterest in the Rays? Or have larger problems increasingly cast Tampa Bay as a trouble spot in the eyes of major-league baseball?

The answers do not line up neatly. Few could argue that Naimoli has made missteps, but other factors seem to be at work, too.

Tropicana Field, built on the cheap 11 years ago, may already be antiquated by major-league standards. The lack of support from Hillsborough County calls into question the stadium's location. Even the market's demographics have become an issue.

"Vince is a very uncharismatic person who has trouble communicating simple sentences," said Andrew Zimbalist, a nationally recognized sports economist and professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. "Having said that, I don't know how much that figures into the equation down there. "A substantial part of the issue for the Devil Rays is they are playing in an unappealing facility and haven't established themselves as a quality team. There are not many towns that would rise up and provide strong support in that situation.

"There is no tradition behind that team, so you can't have a Chicago Cubs type of phenomenon. ... You have no tradition to tide you over through the rough times. The team hasn't performed well, and there have been no superstars along the lines of a Mark McGwire to make an impact. As a franchise, it doesn't have much going for it right now. And Vince is not the kind of guy who can lift that kind of weight on the basis of his personality."

When the Tampa Bay area began its quest for a major-league franchise more than 20 years ago, the sports landscape was vastly different. A team that drew 1.54-million in 1980 would have placed 14th in attendance in the majors. The Rays drew that many last season and placed 27th.

New franchises used to have more time to establish themselves because the economic stakes were not as high. But higher salaries and franchise costs have meant higher prices for fans. And that means a far shorter honeymoon period.

As recently as 1980, the most expensive ticket for a Dodgers game in Los Angeles was $5.50. If you want to pay less than $23 for a ticket at Tropicana Field in 2001, you're going to miss out on the best 13,956 seats.

"We overestimated the strength of the market, frankly," said Bill Bunker, who helped lead the early charge for a team as executive director of the Pinellas Sports Authority. "We thought there were a lot more baseball fans in this market than there are, and we may have overestimated the financial abilities of the market. The lack of a strong corporate presence in the city has probably been a factor. Baseball is a long season, and a season ticket is very expensive. We may have talked ourselves into this unrealistic expectation."

The Rays will not say what their expectations for the market were, but they clearly were anticipating stronger support.

The first game in franchise history, on March 31, 1998, sold out. The Rays have played 251 home games since and have not sold out another game.

Naimoli at times has been blunt about his disappointment with the lack of attendance and community support -- so blunt, he seems to have antagonized many of the corporate customers he is trying to woo.

"I do understand that perception is out there, but I don't know that the perception is unique to our market," St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce chief Russ Sloan said. "In professional sports in general, I think there is an attitude of, 'If we select your city, we are owed your support.'

"Vince wants this to succeed so badly and is so intense that at times the intensity doesn't come across in a way that he necessarily means. I can see how the intensity can be misinterpreted."

Naimoli has had public spats with several businesses in the bay area -- including the St. Petersburg Times -- but none has been more critical than a flap with Dillard's department store over the unauthorized use of the team logo. That led to the chain removing all Devil Rays merchandise from its shelves.

"The business community has spoken," former Rays marketing executive Mike Veeck said. "They spoke when I was there, and they're still speaking. What they are saying is they want to be approached in a different fashion. You can not overestimate the impact of the business community on a franchise.

"I get more after-dinner audiences laughing when I describe calling the Dillard's people than any other story I have. But that logo incident set a tone, and I was constantly attempting to make amends. I went from company to company telling them that we were new at this and we were going to make mistakes. I made that speech a whole lot."

Even acknowledging the potential for Naimoli's negative impact in the area, it does not completely explain Tampa Bay's attendance woes.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has a reputation for being irascible and unpopular, yet Baltimore has drawn more than 2-million in 10 consecutive non-strike seasons. The Orioles, however, have a picturesque ballpark in the heart of a revitalized downtown area near a harbor.

It is not an uncommon opinion that Tropicana Field and its location are the biggest drags on the franchise.

"To blame the market is copping a plea," said Veeck, who owns numerous minor-league franchises and is now working in marketing for the Marlins. "Is it New York or Chicago? Of course not. But that market is plenty good enough to support baseball. You build a stadium across the street from the Bucs' stadium in Tampa and you'll clear 2.5-million fans without thinking about it."

Although some community leaders say they are surprised attendance has not been stronger, they also say the team's performance has been a factor. The Rays have had three straight last-place finishes and have gotten off to a slow start again. Local observers point to the Buccaneers and the way attendance took off when the team finally began to win.

"It's weaker than people anticipated, although they have not had a winner yet," former St. Petersburg mayor David Fischer said. "I think there was an assumption, based on spring training, that people here were anxious to see the real thing. But the base support has not been of the quantity that many people believed it would be."

The Rays attempted to jump-start the attendance in 2000 by nearly doubling the size of their payroll to more than $60-million. The attempt turned disastrous on the field due to a rash of injuries and unproductive seasons from veterans, and the difference in the season attendance was negligible.

As a result, the payroll has been slashed this season, and the team has been cutting corners in other areas. The work force at Tropicana has been dramatically reduced, and rumors are flying in the business community that the team is having difficulty paying bills.

"I believe the market is developing and it is coming around, but it's very difficult for the Rays in the meantime," said Bob Carter, who owns a business consulting firm and headed a civic group in 1999 that made recommendations to the Rays on getting the community more involved. "They still have bills to pay, and they still want to bring in better players, but you have to have money to do that. And you have to have attendance."

Naimoli and the Rays declined to discuss specific aspects of attendance and their views on the stadium and community perceptions.

Senior vice president John Higgins said the market is maturing and he is optimistic it will reach its potential in time.

Are fans waiting for the team to win? Are they waiting for a new stadium, possibly in Hillsborough County? Or are they waiting for Naimoli's ouster?

The perception lingers that Naimoli feels like he is owed fan support after the money he invested to bring the team to the Tampa Bay area. The stance may be wholly understandable for a businessman, but that does not mean it will fly.

"A community does not need a ballclub. But a ballclub desperately needs its community," Veeck said. "This is a classic textbook example of that."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Rays' response

ST. PETERSBURG -- Vince Naimoli declined interview requests Wednesday, but the Devil Rays released a statement regarding a Times report Wednesday that general partners in the ownership group were attempting to oust the managing general partner.

"While the club respects the work of Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg Times, our policy is to not comment on rumors, innuendos and opinions based on unidentified sources," the release said.

At Wednesday's game at Tropicana Field, Naimoli told people in the press box that recent newspaper and radio reports about the ownership group were false and he would clarify the situation with a statement in the next two days.

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