ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays are offering free tickets to military personnel and veterans — an unprecedented promotion for the team whose attendance is at a 10-year low.
Under the Rays Honor Pass program announced Friday, active service members and retired or honorably discharged veterans can get two free tickets to Rays’ home games for the rest of the season. The offer also applies to dependents of military personnel who have a valid dependent ID.
The offer will begin in earnest with next Friday’s home stretch against the Baltimore Orioles. Rays officials said the idea came out of the Rays Up community campaign as a way to honor those who serve or have served the United States. “Our hope is to get as many of these everyday heroes out to the ballpark as often as possible this season,” said Melanie Lenz, senior vice president of strategy and development.
The Rays certainly have room for more fans at Tropicana Field, where some seating sections are kept under tarps partly because of lack of demand.
The team is averaging crowds of about 14,500 this season, roughly 2,400 fewer than at this stage in 2014. Without an uptick in crowds, it is on track to finish last in Major League Baseball average attendance for the fourth straight year.
“It’s not a secret we have attendance struggles,” Lenz said. “We think that in the best case scenario, we’re having to take of the tarp off some of our seats because this program is so successful. We would like nothing more than to have seats filled by our local heroes.”
The offer has a large potential audience in Tampa Bay.
Some 180,000 veterans live in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to local veterans services offices. Another 94,000 live in Pasco and Manatee counties.
Meantime, Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base has almost 10,000 military personnel and a sizeable number of veterans among its 4,000 civilian employees.
“To me this will be game changer for a lot of people thinking should I go to a game or not,” said Michael Lortz, a freelance market analyst and author of the Tampa Bay Baseball Market blog. “It’s free tickets for a huge community in our area.”
While the incentive won’t boost gate receipts, getting extra fans through the turnstiles will likely boost revenue from concessions and parking.
Sales of beer, hotdogs and other foods brought in $8 million of the Rays total revenue of $175 million, a 2013 Bloomberg study found. Revenue from parking for the same year totaled $3 million, the 18th highest amomng the 30 teams in the MLB, the report states.
By contrast, ticket sales brought in $30 million, or about 17 percent of all revenue. The league average for ticket sales is about 30 percent, said John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University sports economist.
Most other MLB teams give some discounts to military and veterans but few match the discount the Rays are now offering through the end of the season.
The Miami Marlins offer complimentary tickets to active servicemen and women and veterans for Monday games. The New York Yankees offer one complimentary ticket in the Grandstand Level or bleachers, or half-price tickets in other parts of Yankee Stadium.
Local sports teams also provide discounts.
The Tampa Bay Lightning provides a group discount to MacDill that is sold on the base. It donated more than 3,000 tickets for Service Night.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offer a 22 percent discount to all military through MacDill.
Rays officials worked with local veterans services offices and the Public Affairs Office at MacDill to put the program together.
“Any opportunities available for military members to participate in community events are appreciated,” a statement released by MacDill’s Public Affairs Office said. “This collaboration is a great example of our supportive community.”
Dave Olson, a retired Navy captain from Palm Harbor who created Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, said baseball would be a great boon for recovering servicemen and women at centers like James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
“We’ve had tickets donate to us by civilians,” he said. “It’s a good thing to take their mind off the situation.”
The Rays have tried other promotions to boost attendance in the past including free parking at the Trop in 2006.
The team also provides ticket discounts for groups such as local education foundations and little leagues, sharing revenue for tickets sold by those groups.
In 2010, the Rays gave away 20,000 free tickets for their final home game against the Orioles. The tickets were offered one per person on a first-come, first-served basis.
Whether the Rays Honor Pass lasts beyond this season will be decided at the end of the season.
“We’d like to evaluate where we stand at the end of the season and see how we can continue this program for seasons beyond,” Lenz said.