MLB shares blame for Rays’ ‘support’

Evan Longoria(notes) and David Price(notes) are correct. The empty seats at Tropicana Field on a night the Tampa Bay Rays could have clinched a postseason berth were embarrassing.

Just not for the players who get paid millions to play, whether in front of a crowd of concessionaires or a packed stadium.

The Rays reportedly spent $19.2 million on sales and marketing in 2007 and $23 million in 2008, but it hasn't helped.
(J. Meric/Getty Images)

As easy as it is to blame the fans in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area – they are, after all, the ones who chose to spend their discretionary income elsewhere – the real embarrassment emanates from the offices of Major League Baseball, which continues to tout this as the game’s golden era while it hemorrhages interest to football across the country. This was a battle lost long ago, and nowhere is it more apparent than Florida.

The Rays might be the best team in baseball. They certainly are among the most well-run franchises. Monetary disadvantages handicap them, and they’re still a player-development machine. Yet it takes the team’s two best players popping off to distract the area from the Florida-Alabama game this Saturday and the Buccaneers traveling to Cincinnati on Sunday.

Let’s try something: Name all the baseball cities in America. The best way to determine a baseball city is: If all of a local metro area’s teams succeed equally, which will be the most popular?

St. Louis is a baseball city. No question.

New York, too. Even if the Giants or Jets or Knicks win a championship, it’s a Yankees-Mets town.

Boston meets that criteria, even with the Celtics’ and Patriots’ recent titles.

Beyond that …

Well, it’s grim. Chicago, perhaps, though the city’s North-South baseball divisions vanish for the Bears. While Minneapolis bought the Twins stadium, the outpouring of love for Brett Favre and the Vikings every Sunday usurps that for baseball. Los Angeles doesn’t even have a professional football team now that USC is on probation, and baseball finishes a distant second to Lakers basketball.

After three seasons with the Rays, Longoria and Price ought to know Florida’s sporting hierarchy well enough to realize that fighting the fans is a futile endeavor. No matter the blow to the ego to play excellent baseball for 155 games only to have barely five figures’ worth of fans show up for No. 156, it is life in Florida – and more proof of just how ill-conceived Major League Baseball’s expansion there really was.

Baseball is not a niche sport. It needs more than a small, rabid fan base to survive. Because there will come a point at which the sport’s owners tire of subsidizing a team that never can make money, and at that point, baseball in the Tampa area will go to the gallows.

MLB never adjusted to the sea change brought on by the Internet and television expansion. Baseball always had one inherent advantage over football: its frequency. Seven nights a week, there were games. Watch on TV. Go to the ballpark. Whatever the case, baseball could guarantee itself kingship during the week.

Once the Internet allowed football fans to interact and discuss the sport in places other than over a barstool, baseball had no rejoinder. The sports media machines kicked into gear and turned football into a seven-day-a-week sport. College games were played on Tuesdays and Thursdays and whenever ESPN offered primetime timeslots. The NFL Network offered fans the ability to break down film on weeknights.

The Rays walked into an ambush. The idea of having a Major League Baseball team in Tampa-St. Pete was attractive. The reality was very different: Football is so prevalent, so overwhelmingly popular, that they never had a chance to succeed.

They’re not the only ones. San Diego couldn’t pack Petco Park with a first-place team nearly the entirety of the season. Cleveland, which in the mid-’90s and early 2000s set a consecutive-sellout record of 455, couldn’t fill Jacobs Field with a first-place team in 2007. And scalpers for Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS at Tropicana Field were giving away tickets, the market having cratered, they believed, because the Buccaneers were honoring fullback Mike Alstott.

The Rays try. Lord, do they try. According to their financial documents leaked to Deadspin, the Rays spent $19.2 million on sales and marketing in 2007 and $23 million in 2008, far and away the most of the six teams whose numbers were leaked. They bring in C-list bands for free postgame concerts. They encourage fans to bring those god-forsaken cowbells to games. They try to recapture the novelty of 2008, when the Rays did sell out games because for the first time in the franchise’s history they weren’t a laughingstock. They do everything they can to make up for their mess of a stadium, and it still doesn’t register.

Nor do the excuses from the fans. Sorry, it’s not the ballpark because other cities with even worse places than Tropicana have built new stadiums only to see similarly pathetic attendance. Nor is it the Rays losing players due to their financial constraints, something the fans could mitigate by attending games. And it’s not the traffic, either. Tampa-St. Pete isn’t ranked among the 10 worst traffic cities in America – all of which have MLB teams that draw just fine. It’s not the population’s transience, either. Good baseball is good baseball, and enjoying a game is not mutually exclusive with maintaining fan allegiance.

It’s very simple: Floridians, by and large, don’t like baseball. This is not a pockmark against them. Just something that Longoria and Price and the rest of the Rays must swallow, and something that MLB must consider when looking at the viability of the franchise going forward.

“We’ve been playing great baseball all year,” Longoria said. “Since I’ve been here, the fans have wanted a good baseball team. They’ve wanted to watch a contender.”

He’d like to believe that. He really would. But it’s not the truth. What they really want to see – what would sell out all 36,973 seats at the Trop – is Tim Tebow raking the infield dirt.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 28, 2010