Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Much Maligned Tampa Bay Fan

By JC De La Torre

With the Rays run to the World Series, there's been a lot of discussion of national media types and opposing fan bases about the perceived lack of support the Rays have had in the bay area. It's valid, as the Rays were 26th out of 30 teams in attendance this season, for a team that was in 1st place a good portion of the season. They averaged only 22,259 over the course of the 2008 season. 2008 was however, the first season that the Rays were ranked higher than 28th in attendance in the last 7 years. The figure also includes a 3 game series in Orlando, that held a 10,000 seat stadium. Tampa Bay added an extra 6,000 fans in the seats for 2008, a steady, albeit not substantial improvement for a winning product. Of course, the post-season has been a different animal, where every seat of the 36,048 at Tropicana Field has been sold for the playoffs.

So why is the team only now getting support? There are several different factors, but the main issue is the make up of the community. The Tampa Bay area is a transient community made up of several large counties in West Central Florida. The largest city in the Tampa Bay area is of course, the city of Tampa, which has a population of 303,447. The city where Tropicana Field resides is on the Gulf Coast of Pinellas County, the west side of the bay area. St. Petersburg, Florida has a population of 248,232. These are the two major population centers in the area, which in its entirety consists of 7 counties that is home to about 3.8 million people.

As I stated before, the population of the community is a transient community. This means that there is a small percentage of native residents living in the bay area. Most of the folks living here moved to the Tampa Bay area from somewhere else. The largest percentage come from the North Eastern United States, and the metropolitan communities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in particular. There are also a significant amount of residents who relocated from the Midwest - Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan primarily.

Thanks to the wonders of DirecTV, these transplants have the ability to continue to follow their previous hometown teams as if they were still in those locales. Yankee Fans remained Yankee fans, the Red Sox fans remained Sox fans, they had no reason to adopt the Rays as their team. As many of you know and understand, when you've grown up watching a baseball team or football team or any other sports team, its extremely difficult to let that team go.

Common sense would dictate if you are willing to move to a community to live, to work, to pay taxes, to enjoy the fruits of living in the region, you'd also follow the sports teams of your new home town. Common sense typically doesn't win out to emotion. When you lived and died with a team for your entire life and the team playing in your new city sucks - you're not going to have a reason to change allegiances. Further complicating things, was the rich history of Minor League baseball and Spring training baseball in the area. The Yankees, Phillies, Blue Jays, Reds, Pirates, and Tigers all hold their spring training in Tampa Bay and many have for several decades, forming fanbases for their teams here. The Yankees have a minor league team, the Tampa Yankees, that play in a gorgeous open air baseball park directly next to the Tampa Bay Buccaneer's Raymond James Stadium. The Phillies have the Clearwater Threshers and the Blue Jays have the Dunedin Blue Jays. This is the challenge the Rays have faced their entire existence. Not only do the Rays have to compete with the history and heritage of the residents living in the area, their territory is invaded by other Major League teams, splintering their fan base in key demographic areas.

The Rays would get huge crowds for when the Red Sox and Yankees came to town, but when Baltimore came in - Tampa Bay would be lucky to see 7,000 at the Trop. The games against Boston and New York teams would be decidedly partisan, or even worse, Rays fans would be outnumbered by the opposing fans. It was a surreal playing environment for the Tampa Bay players.

Interestingly enough for the Tampa Bay Rays, they knew things would change. The precident was set before.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a horrible football team from 1983-1996, where 12 of 13 season they suffered double-digit losses and never had a winning record. The Buccaneers played in the NFC Central division against the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears, and the Minnesota Vikings. Sellouts were few in Tampa Bay during those times - and when they did sell out it would be when they played the Chicago Bears or the Packers and the stadium would be filled with Bears and Packer fans respectively. In 1995, the Glazer family purchased the team from the Culverhouse estate, got a new stadium built, and hired Tony Dungy as the head coach. In 1997, the Buccaneers had their first winning season since 1982 and hosted their first playoff game since 1979, beating the Detroit Lions in the final game at the Old Sombrero. The following season, the Bucs opened Raymond James Stadium - which was filled with Pewter and Red clad Buc fans and began a streak of sellouts that has lasted 10 years. The team put together an impressive run, winning 4 division championships, 1 super bowl title and qualified for the playoffs 6 out of 10 years. Opposing fans still come into Raymond James Stadium, but they are dwarfed in size by the Buccaneer faithful.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had a very similar story to the Rays. After limited success in their first 10 seasons (1 playoff appearance), the Lightning would routinely see jerseys for the Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, Red Wings, Canadians, and Leafs outnumber the Lightning fans. Tampa Bay averaged a measily 14,906 at the St. Pete Times Forum (formerly the Ice Palace) during those years, typically at the bottom of the NHL in attendance. In 2002, the Tampa Bay Lightning made the playoffs for the first time in 7 years, getting knocked out in the 2nd round. The attendance improvement was gradual, as the Lightning put a better product on the ice. When Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004, the Lightning finished 2nd in the NHL in attendance in 2005 and 2006. They were 3rd in 2007 and despite finishing with the worst record in the NHL last season, the Lightning were 8th in the league in attendance.

Basically, my friends (thanks, Senator McCain), what it boils down to is the transplants need a reason to give up their allegiances. As long as the Rays were terrible, the Red Sox fans and Yankee fans would rather stay home and watch NESN or YES network on the dish. When the Rays won the AL East and advanced to the ALCS, Yankee and Blue Jay fans had reasons to finally support the home team. They didn't want to be left out of the excitement of a community in the thralls of a playoff run and it had to be much more sastisfying enjoying it in person than watching it by proxy over the idiot box. When the Rays vanquished the Red Sox in that classic 7 game series, the Red Sox fans in the bay area had reasons to defect. They left the Trop in despair, as the community around them - the community in which they lived, erupted in joyous celebration of the team's accomplishments. Tradition was being created. Long suffering Cubs fans, who never saw their team play in the World Series in their lifetime, were seeing their hometown Rays get there in just 11 years.

What's interesting about this community is while Miami and Orlando face similar challenges, after their teams win and then return back to mediocrity, the fanbases seem to go back to their old allegiances. For some reason, that hasn't happened in Tampa Bay. The Bucs, despite some rough years in 2003, 2004, and 2006, still sell out every game. The Lightning, despite having a terrible season last year and a slow start this season, are still in the top half of the NHL in attendance (this despite being over shadowed and in direct competition with the Rays and Buccaneers).

I anticipate a dramatic increase in attendance for the Tampa Bay Rays next year. Not all, but many of those Yankees and Red Sox fans that last came to the Trop wearing their gear, will come wearing Rays gear and supporting the home town team. Its happened with every franchise in Tampa Bay - all the Rays needed to do was give them a reason. Some may categorize this as being "bandwagon fans". Red Sox fans and Phillie fans in particular have lambasted the Tampa Bay fan support, chiding them as "where were you last year?". The answer? Rooting for the Yankess, Red Sox, and/or Phillies because that's where they're from.

Win or lose in Game 5 tonight, the Tampa Bay Rays will have achieved something that may be even more important than a World Series title in Tampa Bay - relevance.

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