ST. PETERSBURG — Maybe Tropicana Field isn’t so hard to get to after all.
Attendance at Tampa Bay Rays games has surged since the team introduced free tickets for active military and veterans last month. In the nine games since the Honor Pass was introduced, crowds have averaged more than 22,000, up more than 7,000 per game compared to earlier in the season.
That includes Saturday’s sellout of 31,042 fans for the 5-4 win over the New York Mets, the Rays’ first regular season full house outside of opening day since an August 2014 game with the New York Yankees that was one of the last occasions to watch retiring superstar Derek Jeter.
The Rays have issued about 12,000 passes to active military and veterans, with about 2,000 people per game taking advantage of the free tickets, said Brian Richeson, Rays vice president of sales and service.
“It was amazing to see it explode on social media,’’ Richeson said. “The numbers have been really positive and we’re really excited about it.”
The pass, however, is not a cure-all for the team’s attendance issues that have led team owners to look for permission to explore new stadium sites. The Rays still languish in last place in 2015 average attendance, and the recent surge may be because of the novelty of the program and a weekend series against the pennant-chasing Mets.
Nonetheless, the team has now drawn closer in average attendance to the Cleveland Indians, the team with the second-worst crowd numbers in Major League Baseball. If the numbers continue to improve, the Rays may be able to avoid the dubious distinction of finishing last for a fourth straight year.
Other factors are also likely bumping up crowds at the Trop such as cabin fever following the 11-day deluge of Tampa Bay that eased up a little for last weekend’s series against the Mets.
“I think fans were chomping at the bit for something to do that weekend,” Richeson said.
Attendance also has risen since the end of the Lightning’s playoff run to the Stanley Cup, and the team typically sees bigger crowds during July and August when school is out, said Michael Lortz, a freelance market analyst and author of the Tampa Bay Baseball Market blog.
Filling more empty seats makes economic sense for the Rays even if that means giving away tickets, said John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University sports economist.
More fans coming through the turnstiles results in only marginal cost increases for the Rays such as extra turnstile operators or security staff. But the extra fans will significantly boost sales of concessions and parking revenue as well as improving the atmosphere inside the stadium.
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 in MLB, the report states.
“The Rays can still clear about $17.50 per fan on concessions and other venue revenue even if the ticket is free,” Vrooman said.
The Honor Pass program is scheduled to run for the rest of the regular season. The team has yet to make a decision about whether to continue it next year.
“We are really happy about the attention and support it’s gotten so far,” Richeson said. “We’re looking to grow that for the rest of this year.”
For more information on the Honor Pass, log onto raysbaseball.com/honorpass.