Despite what many in national sports media may proclaim, professional baseball is prosperous in the Tampa Bay area. Last season marked the 10th year in a row total attendance for professional baseball in Tampa Bay was over 2 million paid fans. Between Spring Training, the Rays and Minor League Baseball, there are more baseball games played in Tampa Bay than any other region in the country.
Unfortunately, this vast array of baseball options has left one team struggling to compete in its league. While total Tampa Bay baseball attendance has been over 2 million since 2006, the Tampa Bay Rays percentage of total baseball tickets sold in Tampa Bay has dropped from 71 percent in 2009 and 2010 to a low of 58 percent in 2015.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay area Spring Training attendance has maintained near 450,000 per year and total Tampa Bay area Minor League Baseball attendance had increased from 249,000 in 2006 to a high of 471,000 in 2014.
The success of Minor League Baseball and Spring Training in Tampa, Clearwater, Dunedin, and Bradenton has made life difficult for the Tampa Bay Rays, not only in attendance and marketing but also politically. In the last few months, we have seen local areas act in their own self-interest in regards to baseball in Tampa Bay. In early April, the
In early April, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to invest money in Steinbrenner Field in exchange for a 20-year extension for the Yankees, despite the fact that the Yankees were 10 years out from the end of their lease. In Dunedin, city leaders and the Blue Jays have been negotiating behind closed doors on possible stadium renovations and an extension for Blue Jays spring training.
In Clearwater, Mayor George Cretekos stated that even without the Rays, people will still want to come to Pinellas County and funds could easily be spent on other projects.
And most recently, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau caused national sports headlines when they used their affiliation with the Pirates as a reason to provide promotional swag that supported the Pittsburgh Penguins in their NHL playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. When the Lightning fan base pushed back and started a #BoycottBradenton campaign, the Bradenton CVB executive director, a former Pirates front office member, stated the Bureau supported the Penguins because of tourism and their visitor base.
The biggest problem facing the long-term success of the Tampa Bay Rays is not building a fan base or getting fans to the ballpark. It’s the ambivalence toward the Rays by local politicians driven by the local impact of baseball alternatives. As long as there is an incentive (perceived or real) for Tampa and its suburbs to have their own baseball alternative to the Rays, local politicians will not want to give that up for the greater good of the region.
Even if it means losing the Rays to Montreal, Nashville, San Antonio or Sheboygan.
Clearwater is a successful Minor League town. Bradenton is a successful Minor League town. Dunedin is an established Minor League town, although the Blue Jays have nearly the lowest average attendance in Minor League Baseball. Tampa has hosted Minor League Baseball since the 1940s. Even St. Petersburg was a successful Minor League city until the arrival of the Rays.
Now, while the other locations still support and boast of their local Minor League and Spring Training affiliations, St. Petersburg is left to support a Major League team by itself, which it does not have the economic capacity nor population to do.
For Major League Baseball to work in the Tampa Bay area, the Rays need a monopoly of interest. They need to be on the same field as the Pirates, Brewers, Orioles, Royals, Cardinals, and other teams in similar sized markets. They need to be the only game in town.
No other team in Major League Baseball faces the regional competition the Rays face. Teams in similar sized markets do not have local politicians negotiating to keep competing alternatives in the backyard of the Major League team. Those teams have close to, if not 100 percent of their region’s baseball ticket sales.
In nowhere else but Tampa Bay is this a problem.
As the Rays attempt to do their due diligence in researching prospective locations for a new stadium, they not only face the obstacles of a transit mess, a spread-out fan base and lack of funding options, but also city and county politicians who can’t resist the temptation of local baseball interests. Interests that hinder the ability to prove Tampa Bay is the Major League region the Rays and Major League Baseball say it is.