Rays owner Stuart Sternberg set his sights high: "I felt we would be 28th, maybe with a shot at 27th." Surely, with the treasonous Marlins and the ignored Astros in existence, the Rays could draw more fans than at least a couple other teams. But no. Look at the charts. The Rays are dead last in MLB, having drawn an average of 18,646 fans per game, despite being in the thick of the playoff race all year.
It's actually the Rays' worst attendance figure since 2007, the year before they began a streak of six straight winning seasons. And Sternberg says it's going to affect how much money the Rays spend next year.
"We budget for certain numbers and we're extraordinarily conservative when it comes to expectations and budgeting, but it was below our expectations," Sternberg said. "It's not helpful. We have to change our sights for next year now. "
The Rays already have the third-lowest payroll in baseball, somewhere around $60 million. It's not clear if next year's will go down, or if it merely won't rise.
All of these comments should be put in the context of the Rays' ownership's ongoing push to get a new stadium. Sternberg is good for an annual quote about the team's financial problems, often tying them in to attendance woes.
- 2009: After raising the payroll to $60 million, Sternberg says it's "not sustainable" and couldn't have been achieved without the gate receipts from a playoff run to Game 7 of the ALCS.
- 2010: Sternberg says he has to drastically reduce payroll, in part because of bad season-ticket renewal rates and overall poor attendance. "For some reason, people are choosing not to come out as they do in other parts of the country for Major League Baseball."
- 2011: Sternberg says he can't spend competitively because it doesn't translate to attendance. "I could decide to mortgage the future and trade all the young guys," he said, "But the truth is that we would only get $9.82 extra at the gate. So what's the sense?"
- 2012: Sternberg says MLB is losing patience with the team's attendance figures. "The M.O. to this point in our sport and any other is that winning cures the ills. We're in brave new ground: Winning hasn't cured the ills, so to speak."
- Spring 2013: Sternberg says the team's payroll of $60 million is "well higher than it ought to be...The attendance, everyone knows the number." He predicted increased fan turnout for this season. It obviously didn't happen.
It's a broken record, and there's no money to fix it. The Rays are one of the great baseball tragedies of the free agency era. A team that somehow manages to stay competitive year after year despite financial restraints, and a fan base that doesn't reward them. A franchise that's perpetually a few signings away from a championship, and those signings simply aren't feasible.
If winning won't draw fans, would a new stadium? In year two of Marlins Park, Miami has the second-worst attendance in the league. While it's reductive to conflate the Tampa-St. Pete area with Miami under the same banner of "unengaged Florida sports fans," there's no evidence to suggest that outdated and inconvenient Tropicana Field is what's keeping the fans away. And after taxpayers were snakebitten by the Marlins, there's little public or political support for a new ballpark anyway.
We return to Sternberg's comments from 2011:
"Major League Baseball is going to vaporize this team. It could go on nine, 10, 12 more years. But between now and then, it's going to vaporize this team. Maybe a check gets written locally, maybe someone writes me a check. But it's going to get vaporized."