The Tampa Bay Rays – and their fans – have taken some grief this season over the anemic attendance at Tropicana Field.
Even principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said it's been well below expectations.
But without much fanfare, fans have come back to the Trop in greater numbers, a Tribune analysis shows. The Rays opened the season dismally and drew barely more than 16,000 fans a game through their first 19 home games.
Since then, though, more than 21,400 fans per night have visited the ballpark on average. The Rays host the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees over the next seven home games, so attendance should keep climbing.
What to make of the collapse and sudden resurgence in turnout is hard to say, because Rays executives declined to comment for this article.
The Rays' schedule certainly has hurt attendance, because the team has hosted the Red Sox and Yankees only five times so far. It hosted them nine times through this point last year. The Rays stand to make up some lost attendance later in the season, when those two teams come to town more frequently.
But Marc Ganis, a sports industry consultant from Chicago, downplayed that idea. The Rays rank 29th in the major leagues in turnout this season, and you can't chalk that up to an unfavorable schedule alone, he said.
"If they're still drawing numbers like that, the issue is something else, whether it's the market, the stadium or some other factor," Ganis said.
The Rays have never drawn well compared with other teams. Last year, just more than 1.8 million fans visited the St. Petersburg ballpark, which was 22nd out of 30 teams in Major League Baseball.
But this season started out especially bad compared with other teams.
In mid-May, with nearly a quarter of the season over, only 16,312 people had attended games on average. That was down 29 percent from the same period last year – the biggest attendance dip in the major leagues, according to a Tribune analysis using data from the widely-cited Web site Baseball-Reference.com.
The Rays haven't revealed their thoughts on attendance, so it's unclear why people stayed home.
Matt Dolman, a diehard Rays fan from Clearwater, thinks the team's earlier start times hurt. For the first couple months of the season the Rays started their Monday-through-Thursday games at 6:40 p.m., instead of their normal 7:10 start time.
They wanted to let parents bring their kids to a game on school nights and get home a half-hour earlier. The nights shifted back to 7:10 with the start of summer.
Dolman thinks working people couldn't get to the games on time during the earlier starts. Meantime, the team has suffered from lackluster hitting this season, even if pitching has been strong, he said.
Part of the problem was the loss of stars such as Carl Crawford.
"Fans don't show up to watch pitching matchups," Dolman said.
Other reasons for the terrible turnout in April and May could include: eight losses in the team's first nine games; competition from the Tampa Bay Lightning's playoff run; the weak economy; and the lack of early-season home games against the Yankees.
Just as curiously, fans came back to the ballpark in far greater numbers in the second quarter of this season.
The Rays drew 21,432 fans per night over the past 23 games, and that recent improvement has helped boost the Rays' season average attendance to 19,115 over the team's full 42 home games so far.
That's still 3,000 short of the Rays' attendance through 42 home games last year - 22,128 - reflecting how far attendance must climb back from its disastrous start.
The Red Sox arrive for a three-game series starting Friday, and the Bronx Bombers show up for four games after that. So, the Rays should see a bump in turnout, based on past history.
Attendance has averaged 23,200 at the five Yankees and Red Sox games at the Trop this season. The Rays have 13 remaining home games against those two teams this season, compared with nine remaining games against them at this point last year.
How you interpret the Rays' attendance might depend on your attitude toward the team, the Trop and the viability of baseball in Florida.
People who think the team needs a new stadium might have less ammunition now that attendance has improved.
Others might notice that – even with the improved turnout - the Rays still rank next-to-last in average nightly attendance, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Who's dead last? The Florida Marlins, who are drawing just 17,276 fans per night. By comparison, the league-leading Philadelphia Phillies are luring more than 45,000.