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By KYLE PARKS
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Outside Tropicana Field on Friday, Mark Pettit was happy to stand in the hot sun to buy a Tampa Bay Devil Rays ticket. "Seeing it in person is much better than TV," he said.
The frustrated marketers in the Rays front office only hope more people start feeling that way.
In their third season, the Rays are averaging 18,956 fans a game, ranking 25th among Major League Baseball's 30 teams. The only teams below them: the A's, Brewers, Marlins, Expos and Twins.
If the Rays keep up their present pace, they will finish the season with home attendance of 1.6-million. That would be only slightly better than last year, when attendance was a disappointing 1.56-million and the team had an estimated operating loss of $8-million.
"If they won more games, the fans would come," said Pettit, a Tampa bartender. "Now, they get people coming to watch the other team, but there aren't enough who care about the Devil Rays."
True, the Rays' on-field performance has been miserable. The team's "Hit Show" marketing campaign seems to strain the tenets of truth in advertising: Through Sunday, the Rays were 23-38, the second-worst record in the majors. And sports marketing experts say the most important factor in filling seats is winning games.
For now, the marketing plan is to stay the course, and that includes the "Hit Show" campaign, which emphasizes the team's sluggers.
Team officials have been talking about whether the campaign is still valid, but at this point they plan to keep it. Scrapping it would create a public-relations problem of its own.
"The organization feels that once we get to the end of the season, our attendance will be very solid," said John Higgins, the Rays' senior vice president. "Our message to the fans is that if they come to a game, we think they're going to want to come back."
Before the season began, managing general partner Vince Naimoli hoped the Rays would draw 28,000 fans a game this season, last year's major league average. Now, it appears that an average between 22,000 and 25,000 would be a victory.
It wasn't supposed to be so tough to get fans excited this summer. Naimoli's ownership group backed an ambitious plan to increase the player payroll from $33-million to $64-million, but such stars as Vinny Castilla and Jose Canseco haven't produced. And while the hitting has been sporadic, the pitching has often been downright embarrassing.
"If the team could just be competitive, you'd see more people here," said Mike Barger, a St. Petersburg developer who runs MIDA Group and owns a luxury suite at Tropicana Field. "Tampa Bay fans are front-runners. If this team shows them some hope, it might be different. We don't have tradition like, say, the Cubs, where people go whether they win or lose."
To counter that, the Rays are working harder on group sales, which they estimate are running as muchas 20 percent higher than last year. There will be promotions aimed at Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and school-age kids in St. Petersburg's summertime Parks and Recreation program.
"Our salespeople scan the paper, and we're looking for class valedictorians, business groups, you name it," said Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn. "We have to win fans over one at a time."
The team has been playing better the past two weeks, which will help if it continues. The team's homestands in June and July are for longer stretches, so fans have a better sense of when there's a home game. And as new players such as shortstop Felix Martinez and centerfielder Gerald Williams get established, fans can get attached to them.
"We've had 39 different players here already this season, and that's a lot," Vaughn said. "Once the team gets settled, the fans are going to like this team."
Attendance is the most important factor in the Rays' future. Because baseball doesn't have the revenue sharing that helps weaker teams in the National Football League, each team must bring in the cash it needs to pay players.
And while the Rays can cover this year's higher payroll with money from their cable-TV contract, they need to draw better if they are to succeed.
Last year, former marketing chief Mike Veeck launched a wacky ad campaign called "Off the Wall" that had little to do with baseball. After he left, successor John Browne worked with a Baltimore ad agency, the Leffler Group, to come up with the more traditional "Hit Show" theme.
But the team has failed to perform, especially when there are big crowds. The Rays are 2-8 when they've had crowds of more than 20,000, so they have missed opportunities to win new fans.
Marketing experts say in many Major League Baseball markets, the first 1-million to 1.5-million fans in a season are devoted fans; to draw more, a team needs to attract non-traditional fans.
The Rays drew 2.5-million their first season, but that number fell dramatically last year as many season-ticket holders decided they didn't want to commit to 81 home games a year.
"At this point, I don't know if it would have mattered what the marketing tack was this year," said Sean Brenner, managing editor of IEG Sponsorship Report in Chicago. "The team's just not playing well.
"You never know, the team could still get hot."
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