The Tampa Bay Rays seem no closer to landing a new ballpark, but team executives say they're selling slightly more tickets and are convinced baseball can work in the Bay area.
They've set their goal at drawing 2.5 million fans a year to Tropicana Field, roughly average for a major-league team. For now, though, they can't answer how they'll reach it.
Last year, the Rays drew slightly more than 1.5 million fans, 29th out of 30 teams in attendance.
"We're looking to crack that code," team President Matt Silverman said in an interview with members of the Tribune staff Wednesday.
Silverman and Rays executives talked about their marketing and community outreach, saying a growing number of Rays players are making appearances at charity and civic events and many even have contract clauses about giving.
Pitcher James Shields is known for his work with foster kids, and pitcher David Price has his own charitable foundation. Still, that message often doesn't get out, said Mark Fernandez, a Rays marketing executive.
Silverman insists the team's efforts are working. They pointed to a recent report by Scarborough Research saying the Rays now have more total audience — in the stadium, on TV and radio — than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Lightning.
Meantime, they are selling "slightly" more season tickets than last year. Unfortunately, most of the increased sales are going to individuals rather than corporations, Silverman said. Persuading companies to boost their ticket purchases is a key goal.
"We need to get the corporations that have two tickets for half the games to buy six tickets for all the games," Silverman said.
The Rays may be reaching out to businesses more, but much of the business world's attention lately has focused on the Lightning. The hockey team's owner, Jeff Vinik, has wowed Tampa leaders with his $40 million renovation of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and his charitable giving.
Silverman said the buzz surrounding the Lightning isn't drowning out the Rays' message. Still, it has been seven years since owner Stuart Sternberg bought the team so the Rays are mixing up some of their marketing efforts to keep things fresh.
The team has stopped using an outside advertising agency and started making ads in-house.
Rays executives were careful when addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the debate over a new stadium.
The team has been in a stand-off with St. Petersburg for at least two years. The Rays say they want to look around the whole region in choosing a site for a new ballpark, but St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster wants them to honor their contract and stay inside the city.
Asked Wednesday whether the Rays would accept a St. Petersburg ballpark if the city offered one, Silverman said the team answered that question for Foster. He would not reveal what was said during that discussion. He followed up by saying the team would consider St. Petersburg as long as it were able to consider the region.
He also had a ready answer when asked whether the Rays have a dream stadium on the drawing board.
"Yes, a full one," he quipped.