Since the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, now known as just the Tampa Bay Rays, played their first game I’ve been a loyal fan. However, I can’t blame anyone for jumping onboard with the team immediately.
The years 1998-2007 were pretty rough for fans of the team and during those years the Rays never had a winning season. The initial owner of the team, Vince Naimoli, didn’t do much to increase the fan base while he owned the team. He alienated the fan base and was cheap to a fault. Employees were asked to use both sides of even their sticky notes before throwing them out. More can be read about his disastrous tenure here: http://deadspin.com/5779887/the-devil-in-tampa-remembering-the-penny+pinching-snack+policing-nut+cutting-days-of-vince-naimoli
Years of losing, a stadium the fan base is unhappy with and an owner who doesn’t have a clue about customer experience or public relations did not help build a loyal following. But, in 2005 a new ownership group stepped in and started doing things the complete opposite way of the previous owner. There was also a managerial change; Joe Maddon, a progressive manager that implements sabermetrics heavily into his management. The Rays were still on a budget but employed several different strategies to win more games and increase the fan base. A great book was written about this transition and how the new ownership group operates in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.
In 2008 the Rays won 97 games and it was their first winning season. They even made it to the World Series but lost to the Phillies. Joe Maddon helped turn the team around with his analytical approach along with a new attitude he instilled in the clubhouse. Ownership found a number of undervalued players for cheap. Also, years of losing will get you high draft picks and a number of these players were ready to play after being groomed in the minors.
For six years now the Rays have put out a team with a winning record and they’ve made the playoffs four times in the last six years. They have a small budget in comparison to the rest of baseball but they’ve still managed to thrive. They’re even set up to be successful for the foreseeable future due to their farm system and superior process.
Tickets are some of the cheapest in sports. The Rays have been voted one of the best values ticket wise and one of the most family-friendly teams by many publications. The stadium isn’t aesthetically pleasing but it’s always 72 degrees inside and games will never be rained out, which was a huge problem for the Florida Marlins when they played outdoors. The Rays do fun things like bring in zoo animals to the clubhouse before games and they have themed road trips(see below).
The fans are asking for a new stadium but I don’t think that’s going to solve their attendance problems. The stadium is subpar and in a poor geographical location relative to the larger part of the Tampa Bay are population but again it’s cheap. If we build a new stadium the prices will go up significantly which could counter the effect of a nicer stadium that’s located closer to the masses. A lot of locals are still holding onto their hometown teams and the franchise is still relatively young. And it doesn’t help when the first seven years were spent alienating the fan base.
The risk of building a stadium that will cost at least a half a billion dollars is too big of a risk in a city that has had attendance issues in every sport, even when the teams were competing for championships. The Rays were dead last in attendance this year and I don’t know what more they can do in this market. The TV ratings have been decent but that’s not enough to satisfy MLB higher ups or ownership. As much as I’d hate to see them go I’d understand it from a business perspective.