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View from the other side: Rays questions for Mike Lortz of the Tampa Bay Baseball Market blog

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We have a slight change of pace for this 'View from the other side". Today we have questions for Mike Lortz who runs the web site Tampa Bay Baseball Market which studies attendance at the baseball markets in the Tampa area, both the Rays and the various minor league teams in the area. So this time we are asking questions about attendance issues at Tropicana Field

I guess the opening question is how is attendance this season? Is the team's record a big factor in attendance?

Well, attendance is lower than it was last year at the same point in the season, by about 900 people per game. It's also lower than it has been since 2007, when the Devil Rays were insignificant. But attendance is above 2007 levels. They haven't sunk that low yet. And of course, this team isn't as bad as the 2007 team, which was brutal to watch. But this team will have to play at a historic level to reach 90 wins.

Perhaps the 900 person drop per game is relative to record, however, they have played more weekday games than they have at any point since 2007. I think the weekend/weekday split is a bigger factor. But if fans don't come out to weekend games, then perhaps the record might be the reason.

What is the biggest factor in the overall low attendance? Is it all park location or is the atmosphere at the park a big factor too? Or does it have something to do with people in Tampa Bay just preferring to do other things? Is age of population a factor?

Of the four factors you listed, the biggest factor in my opinion right now is ballpark location. Baseball teams tend to draw within an hour radius. Tropicana Field is on the far west side of the Tampa Bay area. An hour west will put you in the Gulf of Mexico. Is that a cure-all? No. But it would help. Unfortunately, that's not controllable right now due to the lease and the cost of building a new stadium.

The atmosphere at the Trop isn't the best, but you get used it. Whether that's the Stockholm Syndrome kicking in, I'm not sure, but when the minor league teams in the area average 3 to 4 rain outs a year, playing indoors helps.

I am researching the market saturation aspect - that maybe fans are doing other things. I do think that's a key factor. The Rays aren't as visible for a majority of the population on a regular basis. Tropicana Field is not the destination center Wrigley Field or Fenway Park is. Nor is it a local destination center like the Busch Gardens amusement park, which draws 3 to 4 million people a year - double the Rays attendance. And Busch Gardens has different pay plans for locals and the same type of concerts and events the Rays do. If you have kids, do you want to drive an hour to see baseball or 30 minutes to see giraffes, lions, and roller coasters?

I recently read a great academic study by Jacob Rosen of the Indians blog WaitingForNextYear. Rosen claims the Indians decrease in attendance is partly attributable to the growth of Minor League Baseball in the area. I think that's the case for the Rays as well and has been since they started. The Rays compete with the Florida State League on a nightly basis. Currently, Minor League Baseball draws over 6,000 a night in the area. And they have $1 nights and free nights and post-game concerts and fireworks. As an entertainment venue - score isn't really a factor to most Minor League Baseball attendees - Minor League Baseball is successful in the area. And I think that is to the Rays detriment.

Lastly, I don't think age is much of a factor. At least in the Tampa Bay area. That might be a factor in team loyalty - an old time Yankee fan might not become a Rays season ticket holder - but I think there are enough 18-65 year olds in the area to support the Rays.

Would an open air stadium somewhere in downtown Tampa be the cure-all? Is there any hope they will get a new park in the foreseeable future?

An open-air retractable dome stadium would be wonderful. Could they put it in downtown Tampa? That remains to be seen. First, the City of St. Petersburg has the lease until 2027. They built Tropicana Field and they get some revenue by having the Rays play in their city. They are not going to let the Rays move without ample compensation. So the Rays can look at other locations in the St Pete area, as they did a few years ago when they pitched an idea of building a stadium where Al Lang Field is. (Al Lang Field is a long time spring training location in downtown St. Pete - the Yankees, Cardinals, Mets, and Devil Rays all trained there at one point.) But that idea was nixed due to traffic re-routing, cost, etc.

Now the Tampa Bay Rowdies professional soccer team has taken root in Al Lang Field and are building quite the buzz, to the point they want to expand Al Lang for their needs. Could soccer be a revenue creator for St. Petersburg to the point where they are willing to let the Rays move? Soccer doesn't draw 10,000 fans per game yet, so probably not. But we will see.

Does attendance vary by starting pitcher? Is there a pitcher Rays fans prefer to watch?

I would like to think so, but the research I have done, and the research I have seen on other teams, points to no. Although David Price's games have drawn about 6% more fans throughout his career.

But Joe Maddon does on occasion try to align his rotation for a key series, especially if there is a travel day somewhere in the schedule. So when David Price pitches versus the Yankees or Boston in years past, are the fans there for the event or the pitcher? Or a mixture of both, as Price gives the Rays a better chance to beat the opponent, so buying a ticket is a better investment for a fan who wants the emotional return of a win.

David Price is the only pitcher, right now, with that type of leverage. While Chris Archer has been good, Alex Cobb is trying to get his groove back, and Matt Moore was impressive before he got hurt, they don't currently have the cache to attract fans.

Perhaps that's what the team needs - fan clubs for starting pitchers. In the early 2000s, the Phillies had the Padilla Flotilla to cheer Vincente Padilla. Padilla wasn't great - he was solid for a few years - but that fan club put him over. Maybe Rays fans can "adopt" a starting pitcher and build fan clubs? Cobb's Crusaders? Moore's Maniacs? Archer's Army?

I imagine that who the Rays are playing can cause bumps in attendance. Am I wrong in think you get your best gates against the Yankees and Red Sox? Is there any bump when the Blue Jays come to town?

The Rays absolutely draw better when the Yankees and Red Sox are in town.

I wrote a post earlier this year where I broke down average attendance by day per opponent since 2007. For example, how the Rays draw on a Tuesday versus the Blue Jays. This allowed me to compensate for the weekday/weekend bumps in attendance and isolate for the opponent effect.

While some of the AL West, AL Central, and especially interleague games lent themselves to small sample sizes or promotional effects, the data versus the AL East teams could establish patterns, since they play each other 9 times at each park per year.

What I found was games versus the Yankees saw a nearly 40% or more increase in attendance during the week and 20-30% more on the weekends. Games versus the Red Sox saw increases of 20-30% during the week (except Thursday, which was 8%) and weekends versus Boston increased 15-25%. Some of that might be because of the significance of games versus "marque" opponents, and Rays fans coming to see "better", more high profile games, but there are a lot of fans of Boston and New York in the Tampa Bay area.

Which to me, pokes holes in the "fans want to see a winner" theory of attendance. If that was the case, fans would sell out games versus statistically worse teams, as tickets to those games would have a higher chance of giving the emotional satisfaction of a win. My theory is that fans want to see entertaining games versus high quality opponents.

Against the Blue Jays, the Rays don't draw as well but they do beat the attendance averages of many other teams. Since 2007, Thursday and Friday games versus Toronto are above average (4.5% and 4.94%, respectively), although Monday through Wednesday games are typically below average.

Is it possible that the Tampa Bay area just isn't a good place for MLB and perhaps the Rays should think about leaving?

I can't rule out that idea. However, I disagree with it right now. As I wrote on my site once, the Rays play in a highly competitive environment where expendable income has been low and gridlock high. The job market in the Tampa Bay area has improved over the last few years. And the area is a great place to live (personal bias). Baseball has a long and successful history here, but as for the Rays, a lot of work needs to be done to make the public believe the franchise is successful. We can look at the TV ratings (which are very good) and the Rays profitability (also good), but pictures of empty sections in Tropicana Field isn't a good look.

I look at the other venues in the Tampa Bay area and I think the Rays can be successful. The Lightning do well in attendance, although team performance seems to be a factor there. The Bucs fill 90% of Raymond James Stadium. As I mentioned earlier, Busch Gardens draws 4 million people on average. And the Clearwater Threshers, who play 35 minutes north of Tropicana Field, are the highest attended team in the Florida State League.

How is attendance at Dunedin Blue Jays games? How do they compare to other teams in the FSL?

Perfect segue from talking about what's doing well. While the Clearwater Threshers are the best drawing team in the Florida State League, the Dunedin Blue Jays are at the bottom, and have been for the last few years. They play in an older park (built when the Jays first came into existence and decided on Dunedin as a training location), the stadium is tucked into downtown Dunedin (a town of 35,000 people), and they play 10 minutes from a Clearwater ballclub that plays in a newer stadium located on a major intersection in a higher populated area and can get Coolio as a post-game concert.

I know spring training is the major revenue driver for most of the Florida State League teams and big league clubs care more about the facility than the attendance, but it must be tough for the Dunedin franchise to compete for fans in the Tampa Bay area. I'm not sure how much that factors into the rumor they might be moving after 2017, but it's possible.

Thanks Mike. Reading this, I see parallels between the Rays and my old favorites, the Expos. Both deal with a  pretty poor indoor stadium that is too far from the potential customers and doesn't have things around it to make people want to head that way. Lucky for the Rays, they have decent ownership.