For the record, I live in Atlanta. I am constantly tired of hearing about how bad the Atlanta fan base is being such a bandwagon-esque place (i.e. when the Atlanta teams are winning fans will show up and when they are not winning, the venues are empty-fact: all cities are like that). And being one who travels around the country to see MLB and NFL games (as well as college football & basketball games), I gain newfound respect for the fan bases, including fan bases of teams I don’t like (New Orleans, Carolina, Chicago-for my Detroit roots) and my disdain for those teams aren’t as high as they were before I went.
One place I went to (twice) was in the Tampa Bay area to see the Rays play baseball at Tropicana Field. The Rays fan base is one of the most maligned fan bases in pro sports, let alone baseball. The attendance speaks for itself. There isn’t much of a following around in the area, let alone the nation. They play at Tropicana Field, which is from a baseball park standpoint a massive dump. With all this said, they MUST have the makings of a consistent 90-100 loss team on a yearly basis.
Well, nope. Granted, from 2014-2017 Tampa Bay had an under .500 record in each of those seasons but in two of those years they were 80-82 and a third year of winning 77 games. The 2018 season marked the end of that run by winning 90 games practically with their own farm system and veterans that more or less “nobody wants.” And remember, they are doing this in a division that has the two evil empires of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees (that alone makes me become a Rays fan).
So even with 90 wins in their pocket and being a team that has been far more competitive than the likes of the White Sox, Angels, Blue Jays, Tigers, Pirates, Giants, etc. in the last couple of years, why can’t the Rays generate much attraction to their own?
Evan Longoria, who until his trade from the Rays to the Giants was “Mr. Ray” (to me at least) made comments last may about the fan base: ”
“Honestly, and this is maybe not something I should say, but my gut tells me that the best decision might be to move the team…I say that only because I look at the example of the Miami Marlins, and (a new stadium) didn’t really solve their attendance issues. So from purely an attendance standpoint, somewhere else might be better.”
Of course this blog was spurred by comments by current Rays player Tommy Pham who said recently after going from St. Louis to Tampa Bay:
“It sucks going from playing in front of a great fanbase to a team with really no fanbase at all,”
Obviously harsh comments by the players. But I see their point. Longoria was on some strong Rays teams from 2008-2013, 3 times seeing October baseball. However after that 2008 season, the next two times Tampa Bay made it, the crowds were sparse and those who were there pulled a lot for the other teams.
I mentioned I went to Tropicana Field on two separate occasions. First time in 2005 when the Rays still had “Devil” in front of their name and they were hideously bad and saw them play against the Orioles. A lot of Orioles fans packed Tropicana Field, but I also went on Wade Boggs night (it was his Hall of Fame year and they honored him before the game), but there were fans pulling for the home team. And the Devil Rays won in a close game where Scott Kazmir was dealing. Fans were pumped and there was “hope” that with young players like Kazmir and Carl Crawford, things were on the up and I thought “just think if this place could be fully packed with Devil Rays fans how loud this place can be!” It kinda showed in 2008.
I went back in 2012 to see my beloved Tigers play in Tropicana Field (rarely see them play because of living in a National League town). So of course I was on the enemy side and the place was Detroit Florida. Tigers fans packed it in (remember this is when Detroit was in the midst of their big run in the AL Central with Verlander, Scherzer, Fielder, and Cabrera in his prime). But the Rays fans who were there still supported the team and cheered their tails off. And the Rays were a very good team that year too.
So the question begs: why isn’t there much of a fan base for the Tampa Bay Rays?
My answer? Major League Baseball, circa 1995.
Cop out answer? Perhaps. But the logic was that while Spring Training was a hit and any game you saw on TV during March was packed with fans, that MUST mean they will support a Major League franchise, right? The early results for the Marlins were okay (they drew 3 million in its first year in 1993). Tampa, MLB officials thought, “had just as much if not more of a storied baseball past as well. It will draw great. In fact, let’s put them in the American League where a large sum of those teams have Spring Training spots in the area (Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians-at the time, etc.) and it will be great and fans can pack it in! And heck, we can appeal to the fans who moved from those towns!”
Of course it was also swayed by the fact that at the same time MLB awarded a franchise to Tampa Bay, Phoenix was awarded one and a push was to get that team (the Diamondbacks) to the NL West. And boom. Tampa Bay was in the AL East alongside the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles (who were also lavish spenders at the time), and Blue Jays. And all of those teams had established fan bases in that area thanks to the location of Spring Training. Heck, the Yankees have a radio station in Tampa.
And on top of it, they played in a ballpark that wasn’t “modern” by any means and was more of an arena with Tropicana Field (disclaimer: I LIKE Tropicana Field and it is actually fun to watch a game. You’re close to the action and it is a unique place, but truth be told, it’s no ballpark). So, combined that with other teams’ fan bases around and 10 straight seasons of losing records (which that lone will stunt any fan base) and you have a team destined to not be successful in winning over the locals.
MLB messed up badly with the Rays. Granted, it probably doesn’t get much better if you moved the Rays to the NL (worth trying though) as you still have bases of the Braves and Phillies in the surrounding area, but nothing like to what you originally have with the American League squads. But the issue is, you can’t build a fan base when there are already other fan bases solidified in the area.
Is there a solution with the Rays and the Tampa Bay area? Probably not. Building a new ballpark won’t cure all ills (see their in-state brethren Marlins). Moving the Rays to the NL may help, but again, what will it be like when the Braves, Phillies, and Mets visit 3 times at Tropicana Field (or whatever ballpark they build there) per season?
There may be no simple answer to increase and energize the fan base for the Tampa Bay Rays, and worse, an answer may involve hearts to break. But the ones who do go to the games and support the home team, I applaud you and a great answer will come out of this. But MLB has done you no favors.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat