Is five-dollars too much to ask to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge, which separates Tampa and St. Petersburg, to watch one of the best baseball teams in the world play?
After struggling to attract attendance, the Tampa Bay Rays offered five-dollar tickets to five of their games. Only two of them sold out, and this came after they blocked off about 5,000 seats at Tropicana Field, reducing capacity to around 25,000.
Despite the real chance of beating the Yankees for the American East title this year, the team ranks next to last in MLB attendance. Last year’s game average stood at 14,259. At 10,014, the only other team with worse attendance was the Miami Marlins, and those rankings have held in 2019. Rays attendance for May averaged 13,440. One game had less than 5,800 fans in the seats, more in line with high school football attendance than the MLB.
Although the Marlins have ranked dead last in the National League East for four of the last eight seasons, the Rays don’t have that excuse. In fact, they haven’t really played poorly since taking the ‘Devil’ out of their name in 2008.
Despite the lack of home support, the Rays’ pitching staff this year has put up the best run-preventing performance of any team since1909.
But morale matters in the long run.
“With our record and what we’ve done so far this year we like to think we deserve to play in front of a great home crowd…meaning 20,000 plus,” remarked center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.
Outfielder Tommy Pham, whom the Rays traded for last year from the St. Louis Cardinals, accused the club of having “really no fan base at all.”
Do I think something has to happen, whether it be a new ballpark, maybe a new city? I think so. Because if you have a team that’s going to be winning 90-plus games, competing in [the American League East], and you don’t have any fan support, that’s a huge problem.
It remains to be seen if the Rays can continue to show their region so much love while getting so little in return.
With the Rays’ lease on Tropicana Field coming to an end in 2027, it grows increasingly unlikely the franchise will renew it. The team’s recent failure to build a new stadium in Ybor City—on the Tampa side of the bay—fell through, almost guaranteeing that if it can’t get residents to games soon a move is inevitable. Talks abound of moving to Montreal—or sharing the team with it—which hasn’t hosted a team since the Expos became the Washington Nationals.
But why have the Marlins and the Rays struggled to fill seats?
Florida has long been one of the fastest growing states in the U.S. At 21.7 million, the state has passed New York and has more than enough people to sustain two MLB fan bases.
Furthermore, tapping into a preexisting baseball culture should pose no problem. Beginning in the late 19th century, teams used the state for spring training. Only California produces more draftees—albeit, barely.
Weather, demographics, and culture all point to a state that should thrive in the MLB market.
But despite the multiple advantages seen by the naked eye from afar, the state poses serious geographic, demographic, and cultural challenges to sustaining an MLB franchise—much less two.
Let’s start with the obvious “advantage.” The weather.
Everyone “loves” Florida weather. Tourists visit Walt Disney World in the fall and the beaches in the spring, causing them to want to move to the state. What that October and April weather doesn’t tell the casual visitor, though, is just how miserable are Florida’s summers. The heat is one thing, but Florida humidity makes Arizona seem like a temperate paradise. Most of the internal immigrants are known as snowbirds for a reason. They live in Florida when it’s snowing in their states and return “home” when it gets hot enough to fry an egg on the bleachers.
Florida provides great weather for winter and spring training, but the heart of the season occurs in the summer. And most people don’t want to get out in it, even if it does only cost five dollars when they can watch the game from their air-conditioned homes.
The NFL’s three franchises, the NBA’s two, and even the NHL’s unlikely presence fare better here because those seasons occur in the fall, winter, and spring—not to mention basketball and hockey’s being played indoors.
In 1991, Steve Wulf argued in ESPN magazine against expansion to his former home state because of the miserable summer that causes “many residents hightail it out of there.” He pointed out that the state had not even been able to sustain a Triple-A team since 1968.
Another “advantage” is the demographics. Florida receives more internal immigration than any other U.S. state. It also has a large Cuban population, and Cubans do love baseball.
But one of the hallmarks of a healthy baseball fan base is family attendance, and most of the Americans pouring into Florida aren’t coming here to raise families. They’re coming precisely because they’ve already raised their families and want a warm, tax-friendly environment to spend their retirement years. Do they love baseball? Of course! But they’re not going to ditch the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and Cubs that their grandparents grew up rooting for, to root for some expansion team in their adopted state.
Furthermore, all this in-country migration, coupled with immigrants from non-baseball cultures, dilutes the baseball-loving Hispanic population. So, while Florida certainly has large Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican populations, those baseball-loving groups only make up about ten percent of the state’s residents.
It’s true that Floridians developed a love for baseball sooner than the rest of the South. This owed largely to the climate’s attracting professional teams, starting with the Washington Senators in 1888 who trained in Jacksonville. By 1914 the spring training Grapefruit League had formed. All this has since led to dozens of minor league teams and a strong baseball culture among the state’s high schools and colleges. This produced stellar athletes such as Steve Carlton, Andre Dawson, Chipper Jones and current stars Manny Machado, Andrew McCutcheon, and Anthony Rizzo.
But all that spring training did not just gain fans for the game, it also built fan bases for the teams that trained. This poses an obvious problem for expansion teams here. For many Floridians, the Rays are their team—unless the Rays play the Yankees, which holds its spring training at its minor league affiliate’s field in Tampa.
A 2012 Quinnipiac University poll found the Yankees command the support of one-in-five Floridians, compared to the Rays’ 18 percent. A 2016 Public Policy Polling survey found the Yankees in front with 15 percent, with the Rays and Marlins tied at 14 percent. The neighboring Atlanta Brave took 11 percent in this poll, and the Boston Red Sox stood at nine percent. A more recent poll found neither the Rays nor Marlins’ cracking the top two. Those spots fell to the Braves (17 percent) and the Yankees (14 percent). NBC’s Craig Calcaterra explained part of the Braves’ appeal, which dominates north Florida almost as strongly as it dominates Alabama: “A huge portion of Florida is, culturally speaking, the deep south and the Braves have kind of taken over the deep south, baseball-wise, in the past 40-50 years.”
Another disadvantage is that Florida has never had a defining metropolis like New Orleans culturally and economically serves Louisiana, Atlanta serves Georgia, and Chicago serves Illinois. This lack of a unifying metropolis contributes to the many microcultures that exist within Florida. For instance, a native Floridian in Pensacola is just as proud of his state as a native Floridian from Miami but likely finds more in common culturally with someone in Nashville than his fellow Floridian near the Keys. This missing link also means there is no obvious location that would rally a statewide fan base.
But the Rays face competition for fans not only from established MLB teams who have trained in their city for more than a century. The NFL’s Buccaneers and NHL’s Lightning have won the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. Although the Buccaneers ranked third to last in average home game attendance in 2018, the Lightning’s fanbase far exceeds expectations based on population. It ranked sixth in both overall and average attendance in the 2018-19 season. This shows that the Lightning have already beaten the Rays for fans looking for a non-football home team to rally around.
A Possible Solution
Miami and Tampa Bay are dead last in attendance because they’re in a state that really has no business hosting an MLB franchise. Perhaps if only one team existed, with time and hard work it could develop a central-south Florida fanbase. If so, that team should be the Marlins. Despite its current troubles, it holds two World Series titles, and attendance during its first decade wasn’t that bad, averaging above 25,000.
There really is no saving Tampa Bay, however. The team will almost certainly move after 2027 (if not sooner) whether fans like it or not, and the Miami Marlins will again become Florida’s Marlins (even if they don’t change back the name). Perhaps, by the 2050s or 2060s the Tampa-St. Petersburg region will be ready for another expansion team a la Washington, DC after a long break.
The Rays, meanwhile, will put up a valiant fight, whipping teams with double their payroll and pulling as many local stunts as they can find in their PR bag. In the end, though, Canada will most likely gain a second MLB franchise in a city with a more rooted population than Tampa.
Florida is a tough market in which to build a lasting baseball fanbase for an in-state team. Besides the reasons mentioned above, there is so much to do leisurely in Florida that it makes it difficult for baseball to compete.