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Major League baseball attendance: Tampa Bay Rays have trouble drawing fans despite fielding a winning team

Updated on November 15, 2012

The Tampa Bay Rays played well in 2012, finishing third in the American League East, just missing out on a wild card spot. This came after their dramatic win last season to make the playoffs, and just four years after appearing in the World Series.

But as they have for the past four years, people will shake their heads in wonder at the low attendance figures for the Rays. Last season, they drew 1,529,188 fans, just barely ahead of Florida and Oakland. This year they drew 1,559,681 and finished last in the majors. So what gives?

One thing to remember is that baseball attendance has changed dramatically over the years. Forty years ago, in 1972, the Rays’ 1,529,188 attendance of last year would have ranked fifth best among Major League teams. That year, the top attendance figure was 2,134,185 by the New York Mets. A whopping 12 teams – half the Major League total – failed to draw a million fans in 1972, including the Baltimore Orioles who had won the American League pennant the year before. In 1982, the Rays’ 2011 total of 1,529,188 would still have ranked 17th in the majors, not great but far from the worst. This year, with the season still more than a month from its conclusion, though, 17 teams have already exceed the Rays’ attendance totals for all of last year.

Past MLB Attendance

Year
Best
Attendance
Worst
Attendance
1972
NY Mets
2,134,185
Milwaukee
600,440
1982
LA Dodgers
3,608,881
Minnesota
921,186
1992
Toronto
4,028,318
Houston
1,211,412
2002
Seattle
3,542,938
Montreal
812,045
2011
NY Yankees
3,653,680
Oakland
1,476,791
2012
Philadelphia
3,565,718
Tampa Bay
1,559,681
 
 
 
 
 

But attendance overall exploded in the late ‘80s (not coincidentally, I believe, with the advent of more home runs) and continued a steady growth through the mid-2000s. By 1992 Toronto led the league with more than 4 million fans and the worst attended team, the Houston Astros, brought 1,211,412 to the park.

Teams typically draw many more fans when they win, especially if they win consistently, which is why the Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox, Angels and Cardinals always appear near the top. So you would think that with the surge in wins, the Rays would appear at least in the top half. But they don’t.

In 2008, the year they went to the World Series, they drew 1,811,986 (26th best) and the following years 1,874,962 (23rd) and 1,864,999 (22nd). In 2008 both Seattle and Washington, which lost 101 and 102 games respectively, drew about half a million more fans than the AL pennant winner.

So what is Tampa Bay’s problem? There are probably several key reasons that despite their recent successes that they continue to lag at the rear in attendance.

One is that, from several first-hand accounts, Tropicana Field is not a pleasant place to watch a game. If you’ve ever seen one of their games on TV that seems clear.

Second is that Florida itself seems to lack interest in baseball. On more than one occasion the Rays were saved from having the worst attendance in baseball by the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. In most years, the two Florida teams’ attendance combined would have barely ranked them in the top 10. This seems strange on one hand because Florida has always been a hotbed for baseball talent and because Spring Training has been held there for a century or more. But that may be part of the trouble.

The third, and possibly the most important reason, is a lack of brand loyalty to the team. This is only the 15th year of Major League baseball in Tampa Bay and Miami. One friend who attended a Tampa Bay game asked a fellow spectator about the low attendance numbers. His answer was that there hadn’t been enough time to pass fan loyalty down through the generations.

This makes sense when you realize most people develop their interest in a team based on who their father or grandfather rooted for. In my case, even though I grew up in Indiana, I’ve been a lifelong Yankees fan because that’s who my dad rooted for, and he rooted for them because that’s the team his older brothers followed. My kids are all Yankee fans because it’s part of the family tradition.

Over the years some Floridians followed the Major League teams that held their spring training near them. Many northerners who transplanted there brought along their loyalty to the Yankees, White Sox, Red Sox, Tigers and other northern teams. Chances are that most adults attending Tampa Bay games grew up rooting for someone other than the Rays.

I think eventually, as the team becomes established in Tampa Bay and children grow up knowing the Rays as their home team, and if the Rays continue their winning ways, and if they build a more user-friendly stadium, that attendance will rise. Maybe not ever into the top 10, but at least ahead of the teams with losing records. Unfortunately, it may take another decade for that to happen.

Tampa Bay Attendance Since 1998

Year
Attendance
Rank
1998
2,506,294
14
1999
1,562,827
24
2000
1,449,673
27
2001
1,298,365
28
2002
1,065,742
28
2003
1,058,695
29
2004
1,274,911
29
2005
1,141,669
30
2006
1,368,950
29
2007
1,387,603
29
2008
1,811,986
26
2009
1,874,962
23
2010
1,864,999
22
2011
1,529,188
27
2012
1,559,681
30
 
 
 

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    • AJ Flanigan profile image

      AJ Flanigan 4 years ago from Griffin, GA

      Great hub. Maybe another reason, although unlikely, considering the Redskins success, is that Tropicana field isn't even located in Tampa Bay, it's in St. Petersburg. I have a grandfather that lives in St. Pete, and attributes part of the problem obviously to the stadium difficulties, and part to what I call the Miami syndrome. There's too much stuff to do in Tampa, causing a severe lack of interest in the Rays, much like Miami Heat fans. It's basically a paradise in mid-Southern Florida, and most people don't like to spend their days in paradise at a horrible baseball stadium eating over-priced hot dogs. Overall, great writing. You've got a follower.

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