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Rays Owner: Team’s Financials in ‘Untenable’ Situation

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B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria (credit: J. Meric/Getty Images)

B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria (credit: J. Meric/Getty Images)

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By Timothy Bella, CBSTampa.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (CBS Tampa) – The final pitch had been thrown against one of baseball’s feel-good success stories from this season, but the post game storyline didn’t revolve around the team’s playoff shortcomings. Instead, it sounded like this: Where are the fans?

Minutes after the Tampa Bay Rays were sent home from the playoffs for the second straight year by the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg expressed his disappointment in the local support for the club, reiterating that the franchise’s future in the area is in an untenable situation.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Sternberg said after Tuesday’s season-ending loss. “It can go on another nine, 10 or 12 more years … but between now and then, it’s going to vaporize.”

Sternberg’s comments came days after the Rays completed a startling comeback to win the AL Wild Card on the last day of the regular season, making up a nine-game deficit against the Boston Red Sox. It was Tampa’s third postseason appearance in four years, including a 2008 World Series appearance.

But the club’s recent string of success hasn’t given the Rays any leeway in curing their attendance struggles. During the team’s last six regular-season homes games and two playoff games at Tropicana Field, the organization’s average attendance was just 24,888. In two games during that stretch, one that saw Tampa chase down Bostonin epic fashion, the franchise failed to get 20,000 fans through the turnstiles. And though the team’s attendance numbers saw its three best figures in the team’s regular-season finale and the two playoff games, the Rays failed to sell out their final game of the season Tuesday. This season, the Rays had the second worst home attendance, trailing only the Oakland A’s.

The tenuous situation involving the franchise’s fan base and Sternberg’s comments, while not immediately threatening, will almost certainly rub fans in the Tampa Bay area the wrong way, Grantland.com’s Jonah Keri told CBS Tampa.

“If you go to a restaurant and the waiter keeps insulting you and even insulting the restaurant, you’re going to stop going,” said Keri, author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, which outlined the rise of the Rays. “It’s not quite that linear a reaction with baseball, because fans are there to watch Evan Longoria, not Stu Sternberg. But engaging in friendlier and more thorough fan outreach has to be a better approach than getting angry and frustrated about it publicly.”

For as dramatic as the Rays’ chase to the playoffs was, the fact that it happened so quick and so late and in the season may not have given fans enough time to buy tickets to the last two home series as well as the two playoff games against Texas, Vince Gennaro, author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball, told CBS Tampa. This kind of dragged-out, slow response in ticket sales can be pinned down as result of a lag effect, meaning there’s a delay in which a team’s previous and even current success will play a role in increased attendance figures and revenue.

“The [Tampa Bay] market itself has demonstrated in 15 years they’ve been there that it’s been a really difficult time to support baseball on a year-round basis,” said Gennaro, a consultant for several MLB teams.

But a number of issues continue to be in play for the Rays, starting with a sagging local and state economy. The state’s unemployment rate remains around 10.7 percent, with the state’s “underemployment likely closer to 20 percent,” according to Keri. The lack of a public transit system also hinders the team’s ability to draw fans from outside the immediate metropolitan area, forcing fans to get in their cars and drive longer than maybe they would like for a baseball game.

“No park in MLB has fewer fans within a 30-minute drive than does the Trop,” Keri said.

Even with Sternberg’s comments, there seems to be no silver-bullet solution in sight. Conversations of a new stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront were essentially abandoned by the team in 2009, with officials reiterating they would only approve a new stadium if it was within the city. The franchise’s lease on Tropicana Field runs through 2027.

“You’re not going to be able to control the size of the market, the economy, and the amount of disposable income,” Gennaro said, “but you can control the influence you have on the stadium situation, so that’s where a lot of their energy is going.”

Patience over at least two decades is needed to build a loyal generational fan base like New York and Boston, Gennaro said, as well as MLB recognizing that revenue sharing may need to be adjusted in order for the Rays to continue to compete. The Rays had the second-lowest payroll in baseball at the start of the season, totaling $42 million.

“[Sternberg] can chip away at it, but the biggest impact could be revenue sharing that acknowledges the franchise’s value in a market like that and be allowed to sustain a competitive payroll that’s affordable,” Gennaro said, adding that MLB needs to at least consider toning down on the Darwinian dynamic in play between the high-revenue, big-market teams and those teams cut from the low-revenue, small-market cloth.

Sternberg’s comments may have overshadowed what was an historic run just to get to October, but the frustration was justified when even Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise, had to address it.

“Since I’ve been here in (2006), the fans have wanted a good baseball team,” Longoria told reporters after the game. “They’ve wanted to watch a contender. And for us to play good baseball for three years now, and for us to be in a spot to clinch again and go to the playoffs, we’re all confused as to why it’s only 15,000 to 20,000 in the building.”

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