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Rays show biggest attendance loss; TV down, too

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 01:49 AM
TAMPA -

The Tampa Bay Rays have had a crazy season, bouncing from worst to first, but the rollercoaster ride hasn't helped at the Rays' gate.

Through the first 19 home games, fan turnout at Tropicana Field was down 29 percent compared with the first 19 games of last season. That's the biggest percentage drop in the major leagues.

Meanwhile, Rays viewership on Sun Sports is down 34 percent year to date.

What to make of the poor turnout is hard to say. The team is hoping for a boost tonight with the first appearance this season of the crowd-pleasing New York Yankees at Tropicana Field.

Chalk up some of the problem to an unlucky schedule. The team has had three fewer weekend games so far, and the Yankees are arriving deeper into the season than they normally do.

Still, Vince Gennaro, an expert on baseball economics from Columbia University and Manhattanville College in New York, said schedules alone normally wouldn't explain a 29 percent drop in turnout.

Gennaro has seen poor schedules bring declines of no more than 15 percent.

He wonders if the problem is the Rays' terrible start, coupled with the loss of stars Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and others.

Other possibilities include continued weakness in the economy, high gas prices or something on the Rays' business side, such as advertising. What's more, one of the stars who remains, Evan Longoria, has been injured much of the season.

Tish Personius, a fan from Brandon, has her own idea.

"I hate to admit to you, but I like to watch them on TV," said Personius, who was browsing the Rays' store in downtown Tampa on Thursday.

This year, the Rays started with eight losses in their first nine games. Since then, they rocketed into first place in the American League East last week.

Attendance at the Trop, though, has not rebounded.

An average of 16,312 fans turned out through Thursday for the team's first 19 home games, compared with 23,123 fans on average for the first 19 games of 2010.

That means 6,811 fewer fans are showing up at the Trop on average.

That's a nightly decline of 29 percent — the biggest drop in baseball, according to a Tribune analysis of data from the widely used statistical website Baseball-Reference.com.

Rays executives declined to comment for this article.

Something is turning fans away from the TV, as well.

Season-to-date, Rays games on Sun Sports have attracted on average about 59,000 households in the Tampa Bay area. That's down from 90,000 through this point last year, according to Nielsen figures.

Edwin Ellis, another fan shopping the Rays store Thursday, said he thinks the loss of star power hurts.

One of Ellis' sons idolized Carl Crawford, but he's looking for a new hero now that Crawford is roaming left field for the Red Sox.

Ellis usually attends 10 to 15 Rays games per year, but he hasn't been to any this season. That's more because of time constraints than the team, though, he said.

Bill Conway, a Clearwater resident, has been to four or five games this season, more than usual for him.

"I think they've exceeded everyone's expectations this year," he said.

The Rays had played only nine weekend home games through Thursday, compared with 12 games up to that point last season.

The date of the Rays' home opener this year also hurt.

Last year, the team opened at home on a Tuesday night, giving them a nice midweek pop in attendance. But the team opened this year on a Friday night. That may have wasted the opening-day surge, because the Rays draw better on any given Friday.

And, of course, there's the Yankees.

Last year, the Rays hosted these division rivals for a three-day series in early April and drew an average of 31,455 people a game.

Still, you can't blame attendance woes on the Yankees alone, the analysis shows.

For example, the Rays' most recent past home stand was against the Toronto Blue Jays in early May, a three-day series that drew only 11,010 fans per game on average.

If the Rays had played the Yankees instead — assuming 31,455 fans per game like last year — average attendance this season would still be only 19,540.

That's better than what the Rays are drawing now, but still 15 percent below last year's average.

It's also much worse than most other baseball teams.

So far this season, 10 Major League Baseball clubs are drawing more fans than last year and 20 are drawing fewer. The median among all 30 teams is a decline of 2.8 percent, according to the analysis.

Personius, the Brandon fan, said she's turned off by the distance to a game and not the loss of star power.

"Now, I'll cry buckets if Longoria leaves," she said.

msasso@tampatrib.com

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