hangoverJohn Romano looks at the recent attendance struggles for the three local professional sports franchises and wonders if Tampa and St. Pete are capable of supporting pro sports.

At various points every calendar year, I am reminded of Tampa Bay’s struggles as a sports market. It could be when the Rays are playing the Phillies in a rematch of the World Series and draw a smaller crowd than the Pirates-Indians or Padres-Mariners on the same night. It could be when I take my son to a Lightning game and find groups of scalpers with tickets in their hands and panicked expressions on their faces. Or it could be when the Bucs have to fudge ticket sales to keep their games from being blacked out on local television.

This topic is certainly not new. I’ve written about the market’s shortcomings before, and it always seems to trigger a fair amount of angry reactions. Folks point out the economy stinks. And it does. They point out local ownership groups do not spend extravagantly. And that’s true. They point out won-loss records, parking prices, stadium locations and crappy $8 nachos. And I can’t argue with any of that.

But here’s the point I keep coming back to:

Those same complaints exist in a lot of markets across the nation, and yet Tampa Bay still seems to lag behind most communities when it comes to pro ticket sales. The Rays? They were 23rd in Major League Baseball in attendance in ’09. The Bucs? They were 27th. The Lightning? It is currently 22nd in the NHL for the ’09-10 season. And it’s only getting worse.

Is he right? No.

Romano says that this is “an observation that seems to reinforce itself every season in Tampa Bay.” He seems to think “every season” consists of 2009 and…well, that’s it.

Facts: The Rays once drew 2.5 million fans in a season (1998). And despite the economy, attendance at Rays games has risen each of the past four seasons and the 2009 attendance was 64.2% higher than the year before Stuart Sternberg and Co., took control of the team.

And Romano conveniently forgets that the Bucs once had a season ticket waiting list greater than 100,000. And he fails to mention that the Lightning were in the top 10 in attendance as recently as 2008 and were second in NHL attendance in 2006 and third in 2007.

Even if these periods of strong attendance were brief, Romano can’t just pretend like they didn’t happen. So while Romano wonders if Tampa and St. Pete can support professional sports, the real question is will they support professional sports. And maybe more importantly, when will they.

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18 Comments

  1. Joel says:

    I think the Trib and Times have a software program called Attendance 2.0. Whenever a writer realizes they don't have much to write about that day, they fire up Attendance 2.0, press a button, and out comes a ready-to-print article. I almost miss the Burrell/Bradley rumor du jour.

    They can theorize (whine) all they want, but a prolonged period of increases in attendance is always a good thing. If anyone thought that one good season of baseball was going to create several hundred-thousand new die-hard fans, then I can't help them. This isn't New York or Boston or LA, but that's okay. I wish we could drop this inferiority complex of ours.

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    • Beth says:

      Joel, I'm also convinced that our local sports writers pull this one out whenever there's a slow day.

      But the fact is our metro area is marginal for professional baseball. We are smaller than just about any other major league metro area (and our small population divided by a large bay). And we are poorer. Back in 2000, our area median income ranked about 150th among US metro areas. There were no other major league metro areas with median incomes as low as ours. Yep, we're actually poorer than Pittsburgh, or at least we were in 2000.

      I don't like to talk down our area, and I really want our pro teams to succeed, but it's an uphill battle, and it's not just because of some inferiority complex - we really don't have the economic clout to easily sustain these teams.

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      • Joel says:

        Uphill battle for sure, but it's hard to ignore an increase in attendance during a down economy. The median income issue is definitely there however, especially as the front office is gradually taking away all the big perks they created to get people in the door (e.g. free parking).

        My inferiority complex comment was more for the writers and fans that think baseball and sports are hopeless here, not for fans not coming to games. I think some people won't be happy until we have consecutive seasons of sellouts like Fenway; nevermind that the Red Sox had lousy attendance until they starting not sucking in the mid-late 80s.

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  2. Deadeye says:

    Good retort Professor. And Beth and Joel, you are both right as well.

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  3. Thomas Kaspar says:

    Sports Fans NEVER show up for losing teams .
    In 98 George Steinbrenner was raising hell to move to Manhattan when attendance was lousy , and do not forget the evaporation of the entire Redsox Nation when the Rays were in the playoffs , and those 45,000 Cheeseheads and on and on . This is big expensive entertainment expense and when the Sports organizations want corporate sales , in return the corporations want the fun and rush of a win , not a blowout .
    Any discussion of attendance without the owners actions and checkbooks as of late is an unfair characterization of local fans . We have a good base , and Atlanta has a very transient base but sadly we are getting more like Atlanta yearly .

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  4. Rob says:

    So Romano is scolded for cherry picking facts and then the Professor does the very same thing? Beth brings the only number that matters, low median income for the metro area. That's the heart of it. Not much else matters.

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    • C'mon...first of all, I'm not the one that constantly brings the topic up, Romano does. And secondly, the only point I am making is that there is evidence out there that directly contradicts his entire premise, that low attendance is standard for the area. I simply showed, that at times, all three teams have had strong attendance. Nothing more, nothing less. A point that he either is unaware of, has forgotten, or chose to ignore. I am not making any generalizations, good or bad, about the area, so there is no need to "cherry pick" anything.

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      • Don says:

        Heres the facts and only the facts...
        The Rays attendance continues to grow....and our other professional teams continues to decline...what else is there to say...
        Now who would like to move the Rays to Tampa......

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  5. John says:

    What I loved about the column was the "and it's only going to get worse," and "they [the Rays] will probably be even further off the pace in 2010." Except, well, not only is that speculation, it's *bad* speculation. It bears little to no resemblance to how attendance has gone in Tampa Bay sports. Attendance has gotten better for the Rays the last 4 years. The Bucs had awful attendance pre-Dungy (remember the Cheesehead invasions?)...and then the numbers improved and maintained an impressive level for over a decade, until this latest train wreck of a team was unleashed on the Bay area. As for the Lightning, that we have supported a hockey team at all for all these years has to be considered a success. That we were a top 10 draw for, what, four years? That's amazing. I mean, I love hockey, but this is Florida.

    Look, Tampa Bay is not New York or Chicago (thank God). But Yankees & Cubs, Cowboys & Patriots, Red Wings & Canadians, they do need other teams to play, ya know? So lets just accept who we are and enjoy the ride, okay?

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  6. Amanda says:

    Can't agree with you more, Prof. Spot on with your references to the other major franchises. (And, if you will, the Storm also drew rather well for Arena Football, especially when you consider its hey day was during the Bucs' and Lightning's hey days.) I'm sorry, Tampa got hit incredibly hard by the real estate market. (My best friend and her husband are currently swimming in their mortgage when he lost his job and their house was devalued from $230k to $130k. They're worried about putting food on the table for them and their two kids, not about making it to a baseball game.) And, I belive the Tampa area are one of the best sports areas because fans are not mindless sheep who give their money to bad products. If you win it, they will come ... and come on the way to winning it, too.

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    • to add on to your point about the Storm, I remember as a kid going to sold out Rowdies games. Soccer games with 30K+. How many soccer teams are doing that now in the US?

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    • DoctorB00Mstick says:

      Good point with the Storm, but...

      "...the Tampa area are one of the best sports areas because fans are not mindless sheep who give their money to bad products. If you win it, they will come"

      Thats basically just a nice way of saying that Tampa fans are bandwagon (which most are). As a former manager for Sports Fan-Attic in the Tampa area let me just say that a strong majority of our fans are indeed mindless sheep. I'm not speaking of you fine folks posting here, just the vast bandwagon majority.

      Everyone loves a winner, but its the fans who stand by their lovable loser I respect.

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  7. John says:

    On a related note: is there a city in the nation with a bigger trifeca of loser-owners than the original owners of the Bucs, Bolts & Rays? Holy cow! Certainly the anti-cream of the expansion era at the very least.

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  8. siul narud says:

    I used to go to the Trop for about 8 -12 games per season from 1998 until 2008 with my family (3 or 4 people), specially on Sundays. Even with discounts and promotions, every time we spent around $100-$160. Comes 2009, we started watching more TV. If my schedule allows us we'll go but lately the extra money is being scarce. We set priorities as a family. Sometimes I think we could aford 2 season tickets, but then, we are going to miss several of the games because my son plays travel ball and have a tight practice and tournament schedule and we are small business owners. So, in my case I blame the economy. I already got 4 tickets for a ST game. Maybe we'll go 3 or 4 times to the Trop this season. Wish the Rays go postseason this year. I'll be there.

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