On August 3rd, 1980 more than 16,000 people packed Tampa Stadium for the “Last Tango in Tampa”, a Championship Wrestling of Florida event featuring the best wrestlers of the day. Through a sweltering heat – the air was “hot and heavy” according to announcer Gordon Solie – fans watched legends such as Andre the Giant, Nikolai Volkof, and Dusty Rhodes duke it out in the squared circle. According to the Tampa Sports History blog, fans “came from all corners of the state” to see the show and be part of what was then the largest crowd to see a professional wrestling show in the State of Florida.

Besides record-setting wrestling crowds, 1980 was a good year in the turnstiles for other Tampa-area sports clubs. While the Tampa Bay Bucs were drawing over an average of 62,000 per game, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the local professional soccer club, were also setting their franchise attendance season record. The sports fever wasn’t exclusive to Tampa either, as the Florida State Seminoles were also averaging nearly 52,000 per game, a surprising 101% of their stadium capacity, and over 125,000 people sat in the bleachers to watch the Daytona 500.

With two pro teams and three college football powerhouses (FSU, UF, and the University of Miami), there was no doubt in 1980 Florida was a football state that dabbled in soccer, pro wrestling, and the occasional NASCAR race.

As the population of Florida exploded from 9.7 million in 1980 to 18.5 million in 2010, so too did its sports climate. While Championship Wrestling of Florida folded (only to return as Florida Championship Wrestling in 2007) and the Rowdies folded (only to return in 2008), nearly a half-dozen major league teams joined the fold. The state is now home to a third NFL team, two NHL teams, two NBA teams, and two Major League Baseball teams. And that does not include representatives in the Arena Football League, the XFL, the Senior Professional Baseball League, the Lingerie Football League, numerous minor league hockey teams, a gaggle of minor league basketball teams, and an alphabet soup of professional wrestling organizations. And the Florida State League is still alive and well. And the University of South Florida is now a force to be reckoned with on the state college football scene.

Strictly from a major professional sport perspective, whereas there was once only two teams (the Bucs and Dolphins) for slightly less than 10 million people, there are now nine major professional sports teams (the Bucs, Dolphins, Jaguars, Magic, Heat, Lightning, Panthers, Marlins, and Rays) for under 19 million people.

Earlier this week, New York Times best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell explored the difference between passive support and passionate, active support, particularly as it pertains to online communities.  Whereas Gladwell peered into the world of social media as the platform of his examination, he could have easily looked into any group of people spread too thin trying to follow too many things. Although programs such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and YouTube are great for getting out messages or receiving and following messages from a group of people, as Gladwell postulates, actions based on these social media messages are rare.

How fitting then that one of this week’s major admonishments of the active support of the Tampa Bay Rays came via social media – posted on my Twitter feed ironically somewhere between Lightning pre-season scores and press release statements from the Bucs coaching staff.

But David Price wasn’t the only public figure lamenting lack of active support.  On the same day Price and Evan Longoria called out the people of the Tampa Bay area, Orlando Sentinel writer Andrew Carter stated that average attendance to Florida State football games had dropped drastically from over 80,000 in 2006 to barely over 60,000 in 2010, a nearly 20% decrease. Granted, the performance of the Florida State Seminoles had been lackluster at best over the last decade, but this season was supposed to bring new hope in the presence of new head coach Jimbo Fisher and Heismann Trophy candidate Christian Ponder.

Meanwhile, on the exact same day the Rays and Orlando Sentinel stated their claims, President Obama likewise called out his Democratic support base, calling their apathy “inexcusable”. This from the same president with 5.5 million twitter followers and who was widely praised for his ability to utilize the Web in the 2008 elections.

So is apathy a local dilemma, a regional calamity, or a national trend?

Perhaps apathy is the wrong term. Perhaps, like the expansion of sports teams in Florida, “the creators” – both online and through other media – have over-bombarded people with too many messages. People are expected to be masters of sports, politics, movies, television dramas and sitcoms, music, video games, and their personal lives. They are given RSS readers, DVRs, Netflix, and two terabyte hard drives to handle all their information (maybe that’s just me). Those who can surf the never-ending wave of content are looked at as a new breed of Renaissance Man (or Woman). Those who can’t are buried in information and must resort to passive observation in lieu of active participation.

A few weeks ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote an interesting piece on his Blog Maverick website. In his post entitled “The Fan Experience – Never Look Down”, Cuban responded to the question of why people would go to an NBA game instead of watching the game on their 50-inch hi-def televisions. Cuban, one of the brightest media minds in the business, stated that his goal as an owner was to sell an experience – similar to that of a wedding. Fans should see more than a basketball game, Cuban claimed, they should see lights, cheerleaders, and other excitement. They should never have a chance to look down and their eyes should always be on the next part of the show.

I would add that they should also not regret seeing Monday Night Football, “Gossip Girl”, and “How I Met Your Mother” – shows that were on the night Price and Longoria made their infamous statements.

(For those curious, I was at the local Hooters, enjoying the environment and watching both the Rays play the Orioles and the Yankees play Toronto.)

Interestingly, way back in 1980, Championship Wrestling of Florida promoter Dusty Rhodes had the same ideas as Cuban. According to a quote by Rhodes’ biographer on the Tampa Sports History blog, Rhodes “envisioned the (Last Tango in Tampa) as an experience, not just a series of matches” and “he not only wanted a wrestling match, but he wanted to create a spectacle: an outdoor show with all the bells and whistles.”

This may be why the Rays are at a disadvantage. Not only are they competing with a lower person-to-team ratio than the Bucs had in 1980, and not only are their potential customers saturated with entertainment, but thanks to a reliance on tourism, many of their neighboring businesses live and die on the same concept. Like Las Vegas, tourism is Florida’s bread and butter. Hence entertainment is everywhere, from Busch Gardens to the beach to the local adult establishments. And with such a widespread battle for the hearts and wallets of both residents and tourists, Florida sporting events have become a place for purists or diehards. Fans want an overall entertaining experience, something they can actively and passionately participate in.

(This is one of the reasons attendance at local wrestling shows has gone from 16,000 to barely 100. By selling only wrestling, the average viewer has become bored. But throw in WWE pyrotechnics and soap opera storylines and fans will pack arenas worldwide.)

(Also, on a related note, I think the Seminoles may be in worse shape than the Rays. Unlike the Tampa Bay Area, Tallahassee has little to offer besides football and a visit to one of the best old-fashioned blues bars in Florida.)

Assuming non-diehard fans would eventually forsake their multimedia following for three hours of entertainment at Tropicana Field if given the right incentive, what can the Rays do to win the battle to for the passions and wallets* of Florida sports fans?

(Not quite the famous “hearts and minds”, but dang close.)

The Rays concert series has been successful, but has led to the odd phenomenon of fans not arriving until the late innings. The Great Ticket Give-Away* was a success. But what else can they do?

Perhaps the Rays could cross-promote with other entertainment establishments, similar to how the Magic are pairing with Disney. Perhaps they could plot a move to green pastures, somewhere where they face less competition – if such a place exists. Or they could continue their current course, fight the elements, promote their brand of entertainment, and hope the dismal Florida economy swallows the other forms of entertainment, leaving them as the only show in town.

*A week before the Rays’ 20K ticket giveaway, Moviefone.com held a contest giving away the exact same amount of movie tickets.

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10 Comments

  1. Don says:

    Would ONE (1) day without an "attendance" post be a lot to ask for?
    Believe it or not... there are important baseball "games" going on....get into them...leave attendance stats to the media morons.....Please!
    Watch the game today...and find something to write about!
    Go Florida redneck....we need you today!

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    • Don, you do realize I only write for this site one (1) time every 2-3 weeks? And that I write about concepts not the everyday action, kinda like your local Sunday editorial? Over the last 2-3 weeks, attendance was a big concept worth talking about. If you want to read about the upcoming game, or yesterday's game, I'm sure Cork and Joe will have some great stuff on that subject soon.
      Of course, I'm sure you'll have 100% of your attention today on the Rays, right? No NFL, no web browsing - you will be focused 100% on today's game. If so, great! If you will be multi-tasking, then you missed the point of this post.

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  2. Chris D says:

    That's just a long way to say "it's all about the money".

    At the same time that MLB and NFL attendance is declining, we've seen record crowds at minor league baseball. The reason? Tickets are $8-$10, drinks are $5 and you sit just feet from the action. Meanwhile NFL teams build huge stadiums and charge PSL, ever increasing ticket prices and $10 for a hotdog. In an economy where people are out of work, what do you expect to happen exactly? Sure, "the show" is nice, but I'll watch it on my HD set instead and go attend the minors where I can afford for it to still be about the baseball.

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    • Chris, not sure I agree on the record numbers for minor league games, especially here in Florida. Although final numbers for this season are not out yet, in 2009 the Florida State League only saw a bump in attendance because the Charlotte Stone Crabs replaced the not-drawing Vero Beach Rays. However, the league saw a bump of 114K, but the Stone Crabs (a new team with new team novelty) outdrew the 2008 Vero Beach club by 123K - so there was actually a decrease in attendance amongst the other teams.
      Sure, the economy plays a role, but I don't think it effects a baseball-to-baseball product shift.

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      • Adrian says:

        There has been record setting numbers across MiLB the last few seasons and I know that the Clearwater Threshers have set a new attendance record every year since moving to Bright House Field in 2004. Also the St. Lucie Mets and Lakeland Flying Tigers set new attendance highs this past year.

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  3. cubfanraysaddict says:

    Good call on the Bradfordville Blues Club. When I was at FSU ('04-'07) they always got great acts (not just local ones), it's a small establishment, and on set breaks you can easily strike up a conversation outside with the artist.

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  4. Dustin says:

    really enjoyed this post! i think your points about the team-to-population ratio, contemporary information-saturation, and florida's tourist-oriented entertainment infrastructure are right on the money. you ask an interesting question--whether apathy (or maybe fan-passivity) is a local, regional, or national phenomenon--that doesn't quite get answered here, tho.

    i wonder if there are other sports-regions that could serve as reasonable comparisons. the density of florida's of sports-and-entertainment environment (especially during the college football season), coupled with the lousy economy and the now-shrinking population probably makes us a peculiarly, maybe uniquely, difficult place for a relatively new team to cultivate an "active" fan-base. but i wonder how, say, the los angeles teams are doing. la's obviously a lot bigger than the tampa bay area, but they've got a ton of teams (dodgers, angels, clippers, lakers, galaxy, chivas usa, sparks, kings, bruins, and trojans--tho, of course, no nfl team), a lot of other entertainment-experience options, and a terrible economy, so it might make for a comparable case-study.

    anyhow, sorry for the length of this comment, and thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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  5. Leighroy says:

    Perhaps if these new trends to social media and HD TV's are driving away stadium attendance, then the Rays and MLB need to get a better handle on their rights distribution for these types of media. The rays attendance may not be up to par, but tv viewership is off the charts. Yet the rays tv contract hardly lets them profit from that at all, as I believe has been intimated on this site before.

    I'm not sure when the rays will be able to renegotiate their contract with Fox/Sunsports but they need to find a way to make it more lucrative in their favor if this is the type of media that will best serve their market.

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