How many fans do the Tampa Bay Rays need?

By on October 18, 2012

The following is excerpted from the excellent and increasingly relevant Shadow of the Stadium blog:

The Tampa Tribune editorial board authored a blunt recommendation to move the Rays to somewhere more centralized in Tampa Bay.  Where, you ask?  They did not specify.

But the editorial brought up several good points:

  • “The region must get it right because it’s highly unlikely we’ll get a third chance.”
  • “Wherever the Rays play, some fans are going to have to drive across the bay bridges,” implying fans should get over it.
  • “Cut 15 minutes off the time it takes most fans to get to the stadium and the Rays still will have empty seats.”

The Trib contends the goal is getting out of the league’s attendance cellar, but that strikes me as setting their sights extremely low.  A $500-600 million stadium to lift the Rays from 30th place to 26th place doesn’t seem to me like a good investment.

So how many more fans are needed to warrant the investment?

Thirty-thousand?  That would bump the Rays up to 15th out of 30 teams and would mean an extra 870,000 fans a year.  But 30,000/game seems unsustainable given the fact that the Marlins only drew 27,400 in their firstseason and playoff teams like Cincinnati and Baltimore only drew 28,978 and 26,610, respectively, this year despite their modern stadiums.

Twenty-five thousand?  That would bump the Rays up to 24th in the league in attendance and mean 465,000 more fans a year.  But there’s a big question if the Marlins could draw that many next year or if the Rays – by moving from a county with 900,000 residents to a county with 1.1 million residents could either.

Twenty-three thousand?  Is it worth $500-600 million for 303,000 fans a year?  If the ticket average is $25, that’s $7.5 million a year for the Rays.  Add parking and concessions and maybe it’s $15 million a year for the Rays.  Might just be cheaper for Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties to hand the team an annual tax credit.

Back to the Trib, the editorial board implies a Rays departure from St. Pete is imminent: “Because its attendance is the poorest in Major League Baseball, the Rays will not remain in Tropicana Field much longer, regardless of the lease with St. Petersburg.”

That’s a bold assumption given no track record of MLB teams breaking seemingly ironclad contracts.  But the Trib probably was right when it conceded, “Whatever compensation (St. Petersburg) negotiates, or is awarded, it likely will be much less than the value of keeping the Rays as a regional asset.”

Which begs the question, “Do the City of St. Pete and Pinellas County owe it to Tampa Bay to give up the equity they’ve built in the Rays?”  And should the rest of Tampa Bay (i.e. Hillsborough Co.) pay them for it if they hop across the bay?

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