TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays have started an unfortunate trend: for the second consecutive year, the team finished last in home attendance.
The Rays’ average turnout this season, 18,646 fans per night, probably will strengthen their argument that life at Tropicana Field is unsustainable and that they should be allowed to look around the region for a new ballpark. For now, no one expects any movement on the issue until St. Petersburg elects its next mayor on Nov. 5.
“I think if we have a new mayor we’ll likely begin negotiations again and get something that finally moves the ball forward,” said St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse, who has endorsed mayoral challenger Rick Kriseman over incumbent Bill Foster.
“The problem is the mayor and the owner (Stuart Sternberg) have terrible chemistry,” he added.
The Rays sold out both of their two playoff games against the Boston Red Sox this month. But that just put a Band-Aid over what had been dismal attendance for the regular season.
Maybe surprisingly, the team that played the Rays in the American League Wildcard Game, the Cleveland Indians, finished just ahead of the Rays in attendance in 29th place.
The average Major League Baseball team drew 30,444 fans per night, so a typical Rays game drew only 61 percent of the league average. The Los Angeles Dodgers topped baseball with a nightly turnout of 46,216, according to the statistical website Baseball-Reference.com.
The Rays also finished last in attendance in the 2012 season by averaging 19,255 fans per night.
A team spokesman wouldn’t comment about this season’s turnout, other than saying its tickets remain some of the most affordable in professional sports.
The poor attendance undoubtedly will come up as the Rays press their need for a new stadium. Signs indicate this offseason could be an active one in the stadium issue.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has been getting more aggressive on the Rays’ attendance and stadium problems in recent years, with maybe his strongest statement yet coming this August.
He labeled the Rays’ attendance “bad” in October 2011 and “inexcusable” in July 2012, according to past interviews.
Finally, at an owners’ meeting in August, he said the rest of the league was tiring of having to subsidize the Rays through league revenue-sharing dollars, in which wealthy teams contribute money to smaller-market teams.
He said he was considering assigning someone from Major League Baseball to intervene in the stadium standoff and “find out exactly what the hell is going on.”
To be sure, the Rays haven’t opened their financial books or provided any projections on how much revenue a new stadium would generate. So, it’s not clear that the team is losing money now or that it would be any more successful in a stadium in Tampa.
Also, attendance is not the only factor in a team’s profitability, and the Rays stand to profit from some new broadcast revenues.
For example, Major League Baseball signed some huge new national television contracts with ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports last year that will pay the league a combined $1.5 billion a year for eight years. That’s nearly double what baseball had been getting. Sports business experts estimate each of baseball’s 30 teams could get an extra $25 million from that pie alone.
For now, all eyes are on the St. Petersburg mayoral race between Foster and Kriseman. Foster had refused for a couple years to allow the Rays to look in Hillsborough County for a new stadium, but this year he softened his stance and suggested he might be open to the idea.
It looked earlier this year like the two parties might reach some agreement on letting the Rays explore Tampa, but by August Sternberg and Selig said negotiations had stalled.
Across the Howard Frankland Bridge, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has been organizing a committee to meet with the Rays if and when they come looking for a potential home in Tampa.
He said he expects the St. Petersburg City Council to let the Rays look around the region for stadium sites shortly after the Nov. 5 election.
In fact, Nurse, the City Council chairman, said he’ll consider letting the Rays explore Hillsborough if the team will give the city something in return. For example, he might ask the Rays for permission to explore redeveloping the parking lots around Tropicana Field, he said.
For his part, Kriseman faulted the Foster for holding up progress on the stadium issue, which hasn’t moved forward in four years. The Rays and Selig are more aggressive lately because they’re more frustrated, Kriseman said.
Foster, though, said he has no lack of chemistry with the Rays owner, just a difference of objectives.
“(Sternberg’s) job is to represent the interests of the Tampa Bay Rays,” Foster said. “Mr. Selig’s job is to represent the interests of Major League Baseball. My job is to represent the interests of St. Petersburg.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story listed an incorrect number of sellouts for the Rays' playoff games this season.