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Where have all the Rays fans gone?

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Published:   |   Updated: July 9, 2013 at 06:53 AM

TAMPA - The Tampa Bay Rays are playing winning baseball and have perhaps the league's hottest rookie, but the team still is suffering from one of the worst attendance drops in the big leagues.

Major League Baseball has a curious reason for the league's overall slumping attendance: cold, ugly weather that persisted into spring. However, that doesn't seem to apply to the controlled climate of Tropicana Field.

Here, a 14.6 percent decline in home attendance seems more inexplicable. Even games against fan favorites the Boston Red Sox are drawing poorly.

The Rays declined comment on the issue last week.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who has fought to hold the team to its stadium agreement through 2027, despite the Rays' pleas to look around the area for a new site, said he's not surprised.

"It's down across Major League Baseball," Foster said. "I am surprised it's down everywhere.

"They're playing good baseball. Just keep winning; extend the season."

This season might've been a banner year for Rays attendance. Most of the baseball writers at Sports Illustrated, for example, during preseason picked them to win the American League's East division. The team's superstar, Evan Longoria, returned to health and the team brought up hotshot outfielder Wil Myers from the minor leagues.

Things aren't turning out as well as they could've, though.

Midseason, the Rays are averaging just 17,961 fans per game at the Trop through 46 home games. That's down from an average of 21,035 fans per game through the first 46 home games of last season, according to a well-known statistical website called Baseball-Reference.com.

In six games against the Red Sox, for example, the average turnout has been a paltry 15,748. A caveat is that all of the Red Sox games have been weekday games, which tend to attract fewer fans than weekend games.

And, you had to look hard to spot the fans among the empty seats at seven Toronto Blue Jays games. They averaged just 12,604 fans per game, including the season-low 9,952 on Monday, May 6.

The Rays may be caught in a vicious cycle, based on the experience of one fan who caught a game at Ferg's sports bar in downtown St. Petersburg recently. Angie Latour, 40, of St. Petersburg, said the team needs more season ticketholders, but the fear that the Rays may leave town keeps her from purchasing them.

"The city doesn't support the Rays enough," she said. "At the end of each season, it's always, 'Where are they going to move?' "

Meantime, competition from big-screen TVs at home and in sports bars continues to eat away at stadium visits, something the NFL has acknowledged as a reason for declining football attendance.

Gary Robinson's running club met at Ferg's for a few beers after a Tuesday evening run.

"Tropicana Field is cool, but sometimes the bar has cheaper beer - and so we go back to that again," Robinson, 30, said.

In fact, the Rays' TV attendance has taken its own hit this season, down 10 percent through midseason when compared with last season's full-year average. About 80,000 homes are tuning in nightly to Fox's Sun Sports Rays broadcasts. Viewership is trending up, though, with more people tuning in now than earlier in the season, Fox Sports public relations manager Eric Esteban said.

The Rays aren't the only team suffering from the turnout blues this season. The average Major League Baseball team is drawing 3.5 percent fewer fans this season, and the mighty New York Yankees have so many superstars out injured that their attendance is down more than 6 percent.

However, the size of the Rays' drop has been striking. Only two teams have suffered bigger attendance declines than the Rays: the woeful Houston Astros (down 15.5 percent) and the Miami Marlins (down a whopping 39 percent).

Just a year after opening their new $600 million-plus ballpark, the Marlins have reclaimed their place in the cellar of all 30 teams in turnout. The Astros and Marlins also are at the bottom of the standings in the AL West and National League East divisions, respectively, while the Rays were tied for second in the AL East as of Monday.

Vince Gennaro, an author who has written about the economics of baseball, points to at least three reasons for baseball's overall decline this season. First, the league suffered from horrible weather over the spring, and secondly, the Marlins' giant drop in turnout is responsible for a big portion of the league's overall decline.

The third factor is a change in the way many teams are pricing their tickets called dynamic pricing. In the past, teams set their ticket prices ahead of the season and didn't really change them. However, teams have started adjusting ticket prices up or down throughout the season, based on demand for certain games. That's generally causing prices to rise and may be decreasing attendance, Gennaro said.

Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said the Rays have used the new pricing policy, but declined to comment further on it.

Tribune reporters Sara Drumm and Chris O'Donnell contributed to this report.

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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