Why a World Series Appearance Might Not Save the Rays in Tampa Bay

As Major League Baseball prepares for 2021, teams are bracing for another season of COVID-19 related financial problems. There will undoubtedly be a smaller-than-usual capacity of fans at ballparks nationwide, and depending on the municipality, there might not be fans at all. Teams are hoping 2021 is not as bad as 2020. According to an analysis by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, the New York Yankees missed over $437 million in expected income. Near the bottom of the list, the Tampa Bay Rays lost only $67 million in expected income.

But the pandemic affected the Rays in additional ways, some of which could impair the ability of the team to stay in Tampa Bay. As the Rays recently appeared in the World Series, it is important to explore how the pandemic could impact the long-term sustainability of baseball in Tampa Bay.

In 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays won 96 games and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. Their series versus the Astros was the Rays’ first postseason under Kevin Cash and their first since Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman left the organization following the 2014 campaign. After three mediocre seasons, the Rays had increasingly improved under the radar of all but the most dedicated baseball fans.

The Rays’ postseason run in 2019 brought excitement to Tampa Bay baseball again. Tropicana Field, normally known for being a cavernous warehouse of echoes and empty seats, sold out for both games against the Astros as cowbells clanged and victory towels waved. Back in early 2008, Will Carroll, then of Baseball Prospectus, gave a talk to a group of Rays fans and mentioned how Tropicana Field could give the Rays a home field advantage similar to the Twins’ Metrodome in the late 1980s. After the home series against the Astros, Rays players confirmed Carroll’s decade-old assertion.

“It’s something that we were expecting to have today, and I’m really happy that we had it,” shortstop Willy Adames said to the New York Times last October. “Hopefully, we will keep having it over the next days and seasons.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic happened and Rays fans could not cheer for the club in person in 2020. Esteemed sports business analyst Maury Brown has often claimed teams should expect an increase in attendance the year following a playoff run. In 2019, the Rays sold 1.18 million tickets, their second-worst total since Stu Sternberg bought the team in the fall of 2005. An attendance increase was almost a guarantee.

In 2020, the Rays played in their first World Series in 12 years. Following their 2008 appearance, the Rays saw their two best-attended seasons since their inaugural campaign in 1998. It is not unreasonable to predict that the team’s 2021 attendance could have been higher than their 2020 mark, which should have been greater than their 2019 attendance. Even if the Rays failed to see their post-2008 averages of 23,000 per game, they should have at least seen their 18,000 per game that they averaged in the late Joe Maddon era of 2011-14.

Here is a look at Tampa Bay’s attendance from 2005 to 2019, with an alternate universe gain of 10% attendance in both 2020 and 2021.

Even if attendance in 2020 and 2021 increased 10% year-over-year, the Rays would still be below their 2011-13 range of 1.5 million tickets sold. However, sustained success and multiple deep playoff runs could put them back in the 1.8 million attendance range they were at  from 2008-11. The goal should be continuous fanbase growth, which should lead to the maximum realistic attendance given the metro market size and the distance of the stadium from the center of the population.

We can assume 2021 attendance will be minimal, if not highly controlled, until a vaccine is introduced to the general public. This means the Rays might not see increased attendance revenue from two years of playoff runs, not to mention reduced season ticket holders, corporate accounts, and sponsorships. The Rays are looking at another season of missed revenue for a franchise that needs every dollar it can make.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been very little mention of the Rays’ long-term plans in Tampa Bay. The end of the Tropicana Field use agreement in 2027 is rapidly approaching. In 2019, the Rays introduced a split-city plan with Montreal, a plan widely criticized by fans and sports business analysts. But the Rays front office was adamant that the sister city plan was the only way Tampa Bay can sustain Major League Baseball. Now, not only does baseball in a bubble prevent Rays fans from showing the world how they can show up for their team, but the Rays are missing increased playoff and post-playoff revenue the club could have contributed towards a new centrally located Tampa Bay stadium.

Last week in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Rays owner Stu Sternberg again emphasized his commitment to the sister-city plan. He called splitting time with Montreal “the only plan in mind” and that “tremendous progress” has been made between Rays ownership and the prospective Montreal baseball representatives. All this while Tampa Bay struggles to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19 and a new stadium seems as far away as ever.

(Ironically, Tampa Bay is now the temporary home of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors due to Canada’s COVID-19 precautions. While hosting the Raptors is a fun idea, allowing Tampa area sports fans to attend Raptors games only takes away from a hurting economy’s limited ability to support its own teams. But I digress.)

Unfortunately, even a sustained Rays dynasty will not make Tropicana Field into the long-term home of the Rays. The distance from the center of the Tampa Bay population to the far end of downtown St. Petersburg means the Rays will always struggle with attendance. A new stadium is a must, and the longer the saga continues, the higher the odds another city presents the Rays with an opportunity to permanently leave Tampa Bay.

It is notable that the Rays played the Dodgers in the World Series, as they broke the hearts of their Brooklyn fanbase and moved to Los Angeles in 1957 following two championship runs in 1955 and 1956.

The last time the Rays saw sustained success was during the middle of a recession. Now they are succeeding during a pandemic. Fate has never been kind to Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.

Michael Lortz is a consultant in the Tampa Bay area. He wrote about the business of Tampa Bay baseball on his site: TampaBayBaseballMarket.com . He can be reached at @tbbaseballmkt . His first novel, Curveball at the Crossroads, is now available.

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Robert K Duncanmember
3 years ago

Sad situation here I’m afraid.

3 years ago

Like with the Marlins, even with a new stadium the Rays will struggle with attendance as long as they play in the Snowbird State. The people with most of the money don’t actually live there during most of baseball season!

The Rays need to get out of Florida before a new stadium essentially tethers them there in attendance h*** after the first couple years like it has with the Marlins.

3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Lortz

How so? I’ve never seen anyone prove this wrong. Do you have a link?

The facts remain that the snowbirds don’t live in Florida during most of baseball season, and aside from a decent spike for a couple years when the Marlins got their new stadium, neither Florida MLB team has ever drawn well during the regular season, not even the year of or year after winning a Pennant or World Series. How could these facts not be related?

3 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I agree. Maybe a new stadium in a slightly different location would help but baseball in florida has never drawn all that well.

I don’t see that radically changing even if they get out of st. Pete. Don’t get me wrong, that would help some if you got out there but potential is still limited as in bottom 3-5 in the league.tampa city is better than st pete but still one of the smaller markets in mlb and probably worse of you consider it is florida

I think one florida Team is enough, maybe try to buy out the giants territorial rights.

3 years ago

The most valuable asset of the Rays may be their Front Office.