Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rays' Attendance: How The Trop is Like Pensacola Beach

I had meant to post this last week, but covering "real" news got in the way...

I was at The Trop recently not as a reporter, but as a baseball fan. Sitting with a group of friends, I heard a number complain about the stadium. Not specific attributes of the stadium, just about The Trop in general.

I asked what they disliked so much about the park and several friends had trouble putting it into words. They simply said things like, "it doesn't feel like baseball."

Apparently, a lot of other Tampa Bay residents feel the same way. Through 47 games, attendance is down to 21,939 per game, a 15 percent drop from last year. The Tampa Tribune points out that just 17,009 fans saw Matt Garza's no-hitter in-person.

But there's no lack of love for the Rays...TV ratings are up an astonishing 72 percent from 2009.

The St. Petersburg Times recently presented possible explanations for why nobody was going to see the hopefully playoff-bound Rays play:

- Maybe Tampa Bay's not a baseball market? I disagree, believing the team is still new and just needs some more years to grow its fan base.
- Maybe fans aren't willing to drive to The Trop on a weekday? Seems like good logic, but in countless other baseball cities, fans will drive 60+ minutes for a weekday game.
- Maybe there aren't enough corporations near the stadium? Another factor that may contribute to poor attendance numbers, but I think the poor corporate support may have more to do with Vince Naimoli's negative legacy and the awful economy than distance.

It's got to be a combination of factors, but from my vantage point, it seems that the Rays have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In continuing to point out problems with the Trop, the Rays (perhaps inadvertantly) are building - and reinforcing - the stadium's negative image.

Why else would so many people dislike the Trop but have trouble explaining why? It's like politics. The more the issue is discussed on talk radio and on the evening news, the more people will believe it. Perception is reality.

Of course the stadium has issues, but why such a drastic mid-season drop in attendance when the team is doing well? The Rays were 17th in the league a few months ago and have since fallen to 24th.

This theory may be far-fetched to some, but it's similar to the situation playing itself out in Oakland right now where A's owner Lew Wolff has continuously bashed his stadium and city.

And it's also a situation playing itself out on the Florida Gulf Coast. Gov. Charlie Crist spent several weeks in May talking about Florida's nightmare scenario...before oil even washed ashore.

Even though Florida beaches were perfectly clean at the time, the tourism numbers took a devestating hit from the perception. Remember, perception is reality. Crist took to the airwaves again to try and promote Florida vacations, but the damage had been done.

The Trop is merely Stu Sternberg's version of Pensacola beaches. It's not an ideal situation, but it's one that may be made worse in the short-term by reinforcing negative perceptions to the public.

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