There are two wildly successful teams in the Tampa Bay area, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Rowdies, a soccer team that suddenly has taken Tampa Bay by ... storm. There are two other teams in the area, the Buccaneers and the Rays. Both teams have problems. The Bucs’ problem is obvious. The Bucs are a lousy football team, and its owners are the hated Glazer boys.
The Rays situation is much more complicated. The Rays are a very good, exciting team that doesn’t draw flies.
The question is why?
One obvious and acknowledged reason: Many residents of Tampa Bay who’ve moved from Northern and Midwestern cities refuse to give up their childhood allegiances. It’s a challenge unique to Florida and Arizona. I’m always amazed at how many Orioles, Blue Jays, and Royals fans there are at games rooting against the Rays.
Spring training is another problem. Most fans go to two games a year. For many, the two games come in the spring when they go see their home teams and then they don’t go to regular season games of the Rays.
Another reason is less obvious: More and more fans prefer to watch the game on their HD flat screen than go to the Trop to watch the games. The beer is free, the couch is comfortable, and no one is clanging a cowbell in your ear. The TV audience is huge. In Orlando, for instance, more people watch the Rays on TV than watch the hometown Orlando Magic. When polled, 70 percent of Americans said they’d rather watch the games on TV than go the ballpark.
Then there’s the question of the Trop itself. Major League Baseball and the Rays ownership want a new ballpark. None of us who have season tickets in section 300 would ever want another ballpark. From our perspective, the Trop is a fine place to watch a game. Yes, the Rays will threaten to leave town and eventually get a new stadium, but that’s no panacea. Look at the billion-dollar boondoggle in Miami. The Marlins have a new stadium, but their attendance continues to be poor.
There is yet another less obvious reason for our poor attendance: When George Steinbrenner was drummed out of Cleveland for closing down his American Shipbuilding operation, he moved his offices to the city of Tampa and took over the city. He built Steinbrenner Field, the spring training home of the New York Yankees, attracting swarms of diehard Yankee fans each spring. Tampa has thus become a Yankees stronghold. Tampans would rather watch the YES network than come to Rays games.
And then there’s the bridge. The Rays ownership is convinced that many Tampa natives refuse to cross the Howard-Frankland to see the Rays play in St. Petersburg. Gimme a break. Ever go to a game at Yankee Stadium? Ever go to a game at Fenway Park?
Tampa residents argue that the Rays would draw more if the team moved to Tampa. Prove it. There’s no data saying that’s true. Given what is known about the broader makeup of the fan base, this is not necessarily so. I know it, and the Rays certainly know it.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to allow the Rays to look in Tampa, despite a contract that forbids it. But why should we do that? Too many St. Pete businessmen depend on the Rays for their living. Why not just offer to help the Rays build a new stadium in St. Pete? It’s our team, after all. Tampa, which has the Lightning and the Bucs, should stay out of our affairs.
And so we seem to be at an intractable impasse as the Rays want us to believe they are considering a move to Montreal, Mexico City, or Timbuktu.
I would argue there is a simple, practical and yet viable alternative.
From talking to disaffected fans, over and over I hear variations on the following riff: “Stu Sternberg is a Wall Street billionaire. All he’s doing is holding onto the Rays until the value of the team gets high enough for him to sell it and make a huge profit. He doesn’t care about St. Petersburg. He really doesn’t care about Tampa Bay. He’s a New Yorker living in Scarsdale who’s only in baseball for the money. I’m not spending my money to help him grow richer.”
I’ve met Stu, and I don’t believe that to be true. But Stu is rightly viewed as a haughty absentee landlord, unlike Jeff Vinik and Bill Edwards, the owners of the Lightning and the Rowdies, who have invested heavily in their communities, not only with money but with their hearts and souls. Vinik is building a multi-million-dollar complex near Amalie Arena. Edwards has rented Al Lang Stadium and has spent millions fixing it up for soccer. He has even bought a sports bar up the street from Al Lang where Rowdies fans can congregate before and after the games. Compared to the millions Sternberg has spent to fix up the once-dingy Trop, it’s small potatoes, but Vinik and Edwards have spent their money on making their customers happy, and their customers are buying tickets and supporting their teams.
To my mind, Stu Sternberg can make baseball successful in Tampa Bay all by himself, but he has to show his fans that he cares about us.
Rent an apartment in St. Pete. Come to games at the Trop, shake hands with the fans and tell them how much you love them. (For almost ten years all we’ve heard is that you’re unhappy with us and the attendance. How’s that working out for you?)
Yes, we know you're pissed because St. Pete didn’t buy the new open-air stadium at the old Al Lang Stadium. Get over it.
Show us a little love, Stu. That’s all you have to do, and if you can do that as this team of talented youngsters develops and grows, so will the attendance. By leaps and bounds. We’ll buy your beer, park in your parking lot, and even build a statue of you near the rotunda.
What do you say, Stu? Give us a little love, big guy.
Do that, and I promise we’ll love you back big time.