MLB – destined to fail in Tampa
For the third time in their history Tampa’s Tropicana Field is hosting playoff baseball. Monday marked the 11th time Tropicana Field has hosted a post-season playoff game. The good news is that all 11 games have been sell-outs. The reality, the venue remains one of, if not the worst, facility home to a MLB team. Regular season attendance figures tell the sorry tale of woe for the Rays; MLB in Tampa has been a failure at the box office.
The 2011 American League wild card winners managed to attract 1,529,188 spectators to Tropicana Field this year, an average of 18,878 tickets sold per game, or 55.8 percent of Tropicana Field’s capacity. The Oakland A’s managed to gather 1,476,792 spectators to the Coliseum this year while they continue to face serious issues on and off the field. The A’s also play in a stadium which is home to the NFL’s Raiders. The Florida Marlins sold 1,520,562 tickets in 2011, but the Marlins are set to open the 2012 season in a new baseball-specific facility in South Florida. The Marlins hope with this investment, their attendance issues are about to turn around. While their success remains to be seen, at least the Marlins are heading in the right direction. Clearly, as long as the Rays are playing at Tropicana Field people will not be buying regular season baseball tickets.
In 2010 the Rays, coming off an appearance in the 2009 World Series, attracted 1,843,445 spectators at an average of 22,758 tickets sold per game or 52.0 percent of the available seats in the stadium. In 2009 the team became serious contenders for the first time and they sold 1,874,962 tickets for an average or 23,147 spectators per game or 52.9 percent of the Tropicana Field’s capacity. Not a lot different in 2008: 1,780,791 22,259 52.8; 2007: 1,387,603 17,130 40.6; 2006: 1,370,963 16,925 38.7; 2005: 1,152,793 14,232 32.5; 2004: 1,275,011 16,139 36.6; 2003: 1,058,677 13,070 28.9 and 2002: 1,065,762 13,157 29.1.
The Rays hosted the New York Yankees last Wednesday night in what has been called “the most exciting regular season night” in Major League Baseball history. Down 7-0 to the New York Yankees in the bottom of the eighth inning the Rays stunned the baseball world coming all the way back and winning 8-7 in the bottom of the 12th inning. With this win they claimed the American League Wild Card spot. The attendance at Tropicana Field was a pathetic 29,518 spectators for such an important game in the Rays 2011 season.
The cumulative average attendance at the All-Star break was just over 19,000. Attendance-wise, September started slow at just above 11,000 per game for the first home stand. The arrival at Tropicana Field of the Red Sox and the New York Yankees, always big draws, plus a concert by country star Miranda Lambert pushed attendance above 20,000 six times. One regular season game sold out – the teams’ April 1 game against the Baltimore Orioles.
There are many reasons why baseball has failed in Tampa – at the top of that list are Tropicana Field and the Rays inability to find the needed public support to move forward with plans to build a new baseball-specific stadium in the Tampa area.
New York investor Stuart Sternberg took control of the Rays from founding owner Vince Naimoli on October 6, 2005. If one wants to understand the issues linked to the Rays economic plight, all one needs to do is look back at the reign of terror associated with Naimoli’s days as owner. The issues the Rays continue to have off the field are connected to Vince Naimoli and how and why Major League Baseball arrived in Tampa.
Problems ensued from Day One, exemplary of not only a terrible owner, but a businessman who set goals that could never be reached. The Devil Rays put their inaugural season single game tickets on sale in December 1997. Namoli boasted the team would sell out 20 of its games that day. The team had sold nearly 29,000 season tickets, leaving 16,000 single game tickets available for each game. The team managed to sell out one game that day, their first ever game; a game that would turn out to be their only sell out in their first six years.
The St. Petersburg Times offered a laundry list of initial mistakes and, as the paper points out, not all of the mistakes could be blamed on Namoli:
Major League Baseball put the new owners in a financial hole before the team ever took the field, raising the expansion fee to an unprecedented $130-million and forcing them to forfeit millions in national TV revenue at a time when the overall costs of competing were soaring. The financial wherewithal of the Tampa Bay ownership group was immediately challenged, and has been a persistent concern.
Just how often have those who own professional sports franchises taken a greedy approach when it comes to establishing the parameters for expansion? Well it’s a tough enough challenge to pay a $130 million franchise fee and next to impossible when MLB decided to ‘penalize’ the Rays by denying the franchise MLB national TV revenues. When Bob McNair paid the National Football League a $700 million expansion fee for the Houston Texans he was immediately eligible for the league’s lucrative network TV deal.
While the Rays stocked their inaugural roster with veteran players, they fielded too many rookies in key management positions. The owner Naimoli, had never owned a sports team; the general manager, Chuck LaMar, had never been a general manager; the manager, Larry Rothschild, had never managed. Of the six department-leading vice presidents on the 1998 staff, only one had done his same job before.
It’s almost amusing to note that the Devil Rays followed a pattern similar to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Then Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito believed the only way he could build awareness for hockey in Florida was with established players. Baseball is a known and established product in Florida. The Rays paid a price for making bad decisions.
Sternberg headed a group that acquired about 50 percent of the Devil Rays in May 2004. He originally had an agreement to take control from Naimoli in January 2007 but was willing to pay the managing general partner to step aside early.
"I can't speak to the arrangement I have with Mr. Naimoli," Sternberg said when asked about a report that the former managing general partner may have received an extra $4 to $6 million to accelerate the timetable.
On November 28, 2007 the Rays announced an ambitious $1 billion plan to build a new state of the art ballpark.
"Our vision is to build a breath-taking and contemporary waterfront ballpark," said Sternberg. "It will be an iconic landmark for the entire Tampa Bay region and showcase all that is great about Major League Baseball in the State of Florida."
At a press conference conducted in the outfield of Progress Energy Park, home of Al Lang Field, Sternberg and the Rays introduced renderings of the proposed ballpark which will provide an intimate baseball venue and offer sweeping views of the picturesque St. Petersburg waterfront. The design drew upon the 100-year history of baseball and spring training on the Al Lang site. In addition to modern fan and family-friendly amenities, the ballpark will feature 360 degree circulation, air-conditioned concourses with open views to the playing field, the smallest upper deck in baseball, and a new public park that will seamlessly link the waterfront park system to the north of the ballpark with the emerging cultural district to its south.
That vision – that dream – turned into a nightmare. A June 2008 St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll found 68 percent of St. Petersburg residents opposed the Rays' waterfront plan.
Soon after the results of that poll were released on June 25, 2008, Sternberg withdrew the organization’s plans to include a measure during that November’s election that would have provided the Rays with the needed taxpayer dollars they wanted to build the stadium and redevelop the area. While opponents have suggested other potential stadium sites for the Rays, few have appealed to what Sternberg believed he needed to make baseball work in the region.
In March prior to the start of the 2011 season Sternberg spoke with the St. Petersburg Times’ Marc Topkin offering an update of where the Ray’s plans are in terms of seeing a new baseball specific stadium being built in the area.
Sternberg told Topkin there has been some slight progress: "nothing dramatic," but, "a larger circle of acceptance that something should be done."
That something has to be done is an understatement. Selling regular season Major League Baseball in Florida is a tough sell. Floridians enjoy spring training baseball in February and March and can enjoy minor league baseball throughout the summer months. The heat can be oppressive during the summer. If Major League Baseball is ever going to work in Tampa, as is the case in the Miami area where the Marlins are excited about moving into a baseball specific stadium at the site of the former Orange Bowl Stadium, where baseball fans head to for their baseball will be a key selling point. The game day experience at Tropicana Field is non-existent; there is no reason for people to attend games at The Trop as attendance figures noted over the last decade clearly indicate. Still, Sternberg hasn’t quite given up on a team he’s lost tens of millions of dollars on.
"It seems clearer to me by the day that we're going to be the last man standing," Sternberg said. "And everything I know, and talking to these guys, baseball is just not going to stand for it anymore. And they'll find a place for me. They won't find a place here though. So it's up to us, to everybody, to figure out how to get it right. …
"We've come so far with this, with all the people who are interested and watching. I do believe we've grabbed into (them) a little bit, and to say it's a good thing, its fun, it's good for your kids, it's a nice sport. … And that's my real concern, that we won't get to finish the job that I know we were right there to do."
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report The St. Petersburg Times