"Can the Tampa Bay area sustain baseball?"
Michael Sasso from The Tampa Tribune explores the financial challenges facing the Rays and then proceeds to knock his conclusion out of the park:
"To be sure, none of this means the Rays can't turn a profit. The team may just need to work harder than most."Stu Sternberg knew when he bought the Rays five years ago it was a reliable source of revenue...but it may never be a cash cow like the Yankees or Red Sox. He would have to work. And he has.
The Rays have made (almost) all of the right moves in the front office. They've made (almost) all of the right moves on the field. And while they haven't been perfect in the court of public opinion, they're still as popular as ever in Tampa Bay.
Sure, the Rays aren't making overnight billionares out of Sternberg & co. (although indications are the franchise has climbed in value by more than $100 million if - and when - they want to sell). But they had to have known that coming in. They had to have known it would be a harder challenge than if they had simply taken over the Yankees or Red Sox.
Sasso makes some great points about the unique obstacles the Rays face in drumming up revenue, but it's hard to sympathize with the claim that Metro Tampa/St. Pete has the fewest fans within 30 minutes of any MLB team. Stu Sternberg - and Vince Naimoli before him - had to have known that when they bought the franchise.
They had to have known teams like the Yankees and Red Sox draw fans from way outside their metro regions. Some travel great distances to go to a game; others contribute by buying merchendise and watching games on TV (as Rays fans did in great numbers this past season).
Sternberg told me last week he wants Tampa Bay to think regionally in order to best support the team. But the team also needs to think regionally. Spring Training in Port Charlotte was a great move. But ownership needs to continue to cultivate its fans in places like New Port Richey, Lakeland, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Orlando.
It will take time to grow the fan base and passion of MLB in Florida. While fans in New York or Boston think nothing of traveling over an hour for a game, it hasn't always been that way.
It isn't impossible to change the mentality of Floridians...but as Sasso said, the Rays will just have to work harder than most.