While Rays pull Rays things, fans left to wallow in embarrassment

The thing that still confuses me, after a week of interrogations and investigations of the Rays’ potential international future, is how Rob Manfred and Rays’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg thought the public would or should react.

Almost immediately the plan to split time between Tampa Bay and Montreal was called out for being wholly unrealistic as anything other than just another craven stadium fund grab — punched up with a dash of characteristic Rays innovation. I’m sympathetic to the predicament that the team finds itself in — games at the Trop do have a ghost-town feel that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players — but it’s still strange that in addressing a situation defined by the lack of fans, no one seems to have considered the public reception. The Rays are really good at outsmarting the parts of baseball that can be quantified, and in this instance that applies to tax dollars, but if the current iteration of the team has taught us anything it’s that being really good doesn’t always translate to participatory engagement from the fan base.

Even before the Rays threatened to take half their home games 1,500 miles north, there was a media obsession with cracking the code behind Tampa’s disappointing attendance. The scrutiny, which has been there for years, intensified this season as a hot start hasn’t helped their ticket sales rank any better than 29th out of 30 teams. When the Rays won a game in late May to pull within one of the division-leading Yankees, it was in front of a franchise-record low 5,786 fans.

The Tampa Bay Times summarized the five possible causes (and five lousy ones) for the paltry ticket sales earlier this season on the same day they implored fans to “get the story right.” This followed a similar story by Deadspin from the offseason that included many of the same explanations plus a sixth additional one: “Everything sucks.” More recently, Jayson Stark of The Athletic spoke to a number of anonymous executives and Tampa business mavens about the failed move into the titular city that officially died last December, stuck somewhere between speculation on Sternberg’s ulterior motives and the city’s unwillingness to foot the bill for a billionaire’s new stadium (good job, Tampa).

And I get it. If we can diagnose it, perhaps we can solve it — if not in Tampa Bay, then wherever the team ends up — and in doing so, avoid the looming existential question: Why should anyone go to a baseball game? In almost every other city, just as in St. Petersburg, the experience can be expensive and inconvenient and uncomfortable. A version of the game is accessible at home or at a local bar or literally wherever you take your phone.

Of course if you start down that path, most of the modern human existence is open to nihilist disregard, especially forms of entertainment. But while music and movies and books and the like have a first-order obligation to be engaging, sports are built on the collective willful delusion that winning has inherent value which supersedes all else. But the Rays represent a particularly uncomfortable inherent quandary. Namely, what is winning worth?

Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg reacts while answering questions at a press conference at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Sternberg spoke about exploring the prospect of playing some future home games in Montreal. At left is Rays President of Baseball Operations Matthew Silverman. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg reacts while answering questions at a press conference at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Sternberg spoke about exploring the prospect of playing some future home games in Montreal. At left is Rays President of Baseball Operations Matthew Silverman. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Why does no one go to see the Rays?

Earlier this month, before the split-season scheme was announced, Shohei Ohtani hit for the cycle — the first time a Japanese-born player had done so in Major League Baseball — in a game against the Rays. I was in Tampa while this happened, but rather than witnessing the historic event in person, I watched it on TV (from my hotel room, where I was staying for the Association for Women in Sports Media conference). And in this way, I experienced what it’s like to be a Rays fan.

Cab drivers as the conduit for the pathos or ethos of a given city is a crutch for writing faux-knowingly about somewhere that you’ve never lived. But frankly I haven’t ever lived in Tampa (and I don’t have a driver’s license anyway) and before I could even tell him why I was in town, Alex — who picked me up at the airport with a septum piercing and a series of fatalistic proclamations about his home state revolving around an all-nude strip club-slash-diner where the girls aren’t much to look at but the chicken fingers aren’t half bad — started talking about how no one goes to see the Rays.

Like many locals, Alex blames the bridges. Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, is actually in St. Petersburg, a daunting drive from downtown Tampa, especially during rush hour. The two bridges that connect the Pinellas County peninsula where the Rays play to their nominal home are narrow and prone to heavy congestion. Leaving from the suburban side of Tampa’s downtown, the drive to the Trop can take over an hour in the early evening. The bridges, Howard Frankland and Gandy, are each around three miles long and low to the water. Recently, a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation made the streetcar system in downtown Tampa free to use for the next few years — this could have been a boon to the proposed stadium in the Ybor City neighborhood that never materialized. But as it stands there’s no real viable way to access St. Petersburg on public transportation. Everyone who goes from Tampa to the Trop has to face the bridge traffic first.

Alex insisted that people do like the Rays — although not as much as they like the Bucs or the Lightning, who have sold out 201 consecutive games — they just can’t get there.

Within the organization, several people cited to me a 2011 study which put the Rays in dead last for population within a 30-minute radius from the stadium. It’s a compellingly simple answer to the complicated question facing the coastal team: too much water in the immediate vicinity, and fish don’t go to games.

This is a common explanation for the Rays’ lack of attendance, but it’s not the only one.

The general population has other theories. Thomas, a security guard at the stadium, blames the enclosed Trop’s utter lack of appeal in comparison to the beach attractions that generally lure people to Florida. Casey, a young transplant from Plattsburgh, New York, hasn’t been persuaded to abandon his Yankees fandom with their spring training facility so close. Other people cite the poor perks for season ticket holders or the economic precarity of the area. In Tampa proper, one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to 12.3 percent nationally.

Trevor, a University of Florida student who was born and raised in Tampa, said it’s just hard to be a Rays fan, even when they’re winning.

“There was a period from 2008-2010 when everyone was diehard Rays fans,” he said, “but then they got rid of the manager and fired all the players.” Even if that’s not quite right — baseball teams rarely fire their players — it’s indicative of the perception in Tampa Bay that the Rays’ desire to win while sticking to their self-imposed budget trumps their desire to field a team of exciting talent. It’s why they were one of the teams that Players Association filed a grievance against last year for failing to spend sufficiently.

This last point is key. Some people have argued that the Rays’ ability to win games the past two seasons undermines the grievance, but that presumes winning supersedes your fans’ ability to remain invested in the team. The opener works — unless the metric is whether anyone in the city can name your starting rotation.

Most accounts of the attendance problem in Tampa start with a stipulation that the Rays get strong television ratings, indicating a fan base exists, just not at the Trop. The ratings are better than the ticket sales. Lately, however, those numbers are trending in the wrong direction, as well. The Rays ranked 13th overall in primetime regional ratings in 2016, a year they finished at the bottom of the AL East with only 68 wins. Last year, they won 90 games and dropped to 20th in ratings. In terms of household viewers per game, that’s a drop from 55,000 in 2016 to 46,000 in 2018. Since 2015, when they finished fourth but averaged 75,000 household viewers per game, primetime regional ratings have dropped about 40 percent.

Maybe people are watching them less and less on TV because they can’t go to the games — or maybe they’re not trying that hard to go to the games because the team on their television at home feels increasingly disassociated from the city itself.

Tampa Bay Rays officials and grounds crew talk under emergency lightning after lightning strikes knocked out power inside Tropicana Field before the start of a game with the New York Yankees Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
Tampa Bay Rays officials and grounds crew talk under emergency lightning after lightning strikes knocked out power inside Tropicana Field before the start of a game with the New York Yankees Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

What if Rays are the canary in the coal mine?

It’s tempting to explain the Rays’ attendance problems through a Tampa Bay-specific lens — after all, their dismal rankings compared to less successful teams underscores a seemingly immutable situation. But attendance is down all around baseball and trying to figure out what differentiates the Rays obscures the ways in which they epitomize league-wide problems.

Maybe the Rays aren’t an aberration; they’re the logical extreme of small-market teams who are all trying to hack the system for cheap talent and a dispassionately replicable winning formula. They’re what happens when a stadium built in the wrong place (Atlanta) meets a lack of public transportation (D.C.) meets an inhospitable atmosphere (Oakland) meets the baseball-as-business roster construction and overly analytical strategy that has come to define the modern game.

What if the Rays are the canary in the coal mine about how easy it is these days — an age of distractions and savvy consumers — to lose fans to at-home viewership and then altogether if franchises refuse to consider what’s best for them first and foremost?

So, what is winning worth?

Which brings me back to the split-season announcement and the prevailing interpretation of it as an attempt to extort somewhere into paying for a new ballpark — whether that’s Tampa or Montreal or a different city entirely. This comes after years of Sternberg trying to get Tampa to pay for a stadium the old fashioned way (by asking for it) and failing because the city couldn’t or wouldn’t afford it and Sternberg refused to make up the difference.

"We are focused on how the Rays can thrive here in Tampa Bay,” Sternberg said in a press conference. And also, “To be clear, this is not a staged exit.”

Does it matter if that is perceived to be a boldfaced lie? Depends on what you mean by matters. The Rays are really good at innovative money-saving success and the leverage they’ve loopholed their way into here will likely work to get a new stadium built somewhere that Sternberg doesn’t have to dedicate too much of his own money. It’ll be another win for the Rays.

But again, what is winning worth?

I understand why players and anyone associated with the team wants to win — an intrinsic need to define ourselves as superior to those around us has driven most of human history. And I even understand how that translates into impassioned tribalism among fan bases — an ability to satiate that base desire to dominate vicariously through typically non-violent competition is one of the few good human adaptations.

That sense of community and catharsis, though, is not just a byproduct, it’s the underlying force that propels the entire industry. Sports are a tenuous cycle because the benefits (money, a personally fulfilling career) for the players and people professionally associated with the game are tangible, but the whole thing falls apart if the people who are not directly impacted by the outcome — after last season, Bostonians didn’t annex Los Angeles or any of the other cities the Red Sox bested en route to a world championship — stop buying in.

To disregard fans’ feelings — about roster constructions, stadium financing, or the way all of that is communicated to the public — isn’t just unkind, it’s unsavvy.

If that sounds sort of naively idealistic consider that so is the cultish ritual of attending a baseball game and deriving a sense of meaningful communion from the arbitrary athletic feats of strangers. What I’m saying is that baseball has no inherent value beyond the cultural construct, by which I mean whether or not people give a crap. If the fans aren’t showing up, and the touted TV numbers are slipping, then how can we call a baseball team “good?”

The bigger picture isn’t really about the Rays — and their prohibitive geographical limitations. It’s about the rise of three true outcomes, the other sports leagues that have gotten good at marketing their players’ personalities, the alienating predominance of analytics, cities wising up to the scam that is publicly funded stadiums, owners cheaping out on retaining marquee talent.

Major League Baseball and the Rays had to do something to address the reality of Tampa Bay’s attendance problem, and they are. But they aren’t really reckoning with it.

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