While the Rays continue their amazing run atop the American League East, John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times has caused some local consternation with two columns this week on the club's recent attendance woes:
The Rays have drawn an average of just around 15,000 fans apiece to each of their last six home games, a Monday-Wednesday series last week (August 18-20) against the first-place Angels and a Tuesday-Thursday set this week versus Toronto. While there are some fig leaves one can use to explain those empty seats (public schools opened in the Tampa-St. Pete area on the 18th and 19th, and the Jays have always been a worse-than-normal draw for the Rays, with the April series between the two clubs moved to Orlando), I feel Romano's got a great point. The Rays' renaissance certainly has not gone unnoticed in Tampa Bay --- TV ratings have risen significantly, merchandise sales are way up, the team is getting significantly more column inches of coverage in the local papers. However, if they're not drawing at least 20,000 a game at this point despite this significant increase in local interest, then the problem's gotta be either the ballpark, the market or the economy. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg keeps saying it's the former, and the economy has depressed attendance at many venues in many leagues. Still, I gotta wonder if Tampa Bay can support a football team _and_ a baseball team _and_ a hockey team. The Lightning have never sold out consistently (indeed, in their Cup year in 2004, they did not sell out their first two home playoff games), and this season, the Buccaneers still have not sold out seven of their eight home games going into Labor Day weekend; this from a franchise that, over the past ten years or so, has usually sold out the entire home slate within an hour of putting single-game tix up for sale. The Rays have never been good enough to test the point until now, but I've always wondered if the Bucs, Rays and Lightning could all draw well at the same time. It hasn't happened yet.
Having said all that, the Rays have just four home series left this regular season, and all probably will draw a lot better than their last two series (Baltimore over Labor Day weekend, the Yankees Sept. 2-4, the Red Sox Sept. 15-17, then a four-game weekend set versus the Twins where the Rays may be on the verge of clinching a playoff berth).