Rays Fans Not Exactly Flocking to the Trop

Tropicana Field stands
Lots of stretching room at the Trop
ST. PETERSBURG (2011-10-3) -

The Tampa Bay Rays have hung on in this improbable season to squeak into the baseball playoffs. Their first playoff home game last night at Tropicana Field sold out. But it's been a hard sell to fill the Trop with fans this year. During a recent game, some of the fans who did show up gave their reasons why.

It's about a half-hour before the game where the Rays are locked in a tie with the Boston Red Sox for a shot at the playoffs. The season has come down to a handful of games where a win or loss determines who gets to play on - or watch the playoffs on their couch.

For sports fans, it doesn't get much better than this.

So you'd think there would be a line of fans clamoring to get into Tropicana Field. But I cruise into the parking lot with no problem. The lot's maybe half-full. A few tailgaters are grilling burgers and swilling lite beer. I start talking to a trio of guys from Philadelphia and New York - which happen to lead the league in attendance.

University of Tampa student Alex Massaroni says he's only a Rays fan until the Yankees come to town.

"I'm from New York, he's from Philly, he's from New Jersey. Everyone who comes down - they're still rooting for their home team," says Massaroni. "We're not rooting for the Rays as much as the Yankees. If the Yankees come down and play the Rays, I'm rooting for the Yankees. The area down here - there's mostly an older crowd and younger crowd, and everyone's rooting for their hometown team, not for the team they came down to watch just every once in a while."

In another row, Joshua Walsh and Ryan Allen of Clearwater say the Rays are too new to have developed a devoted, rabid fan base - but too old to still be a novelty.

"There's a big generational gap between the actual Rays fans and the people who just support the team. There's the people who are going to grow up to become Rays fans, and there are people who came here from other places to become Rays fans," says Allen "Just look at Boston and the Yankees - they grew up there, and that's why the attendance is what it is. So hopefully, when they grow up and bring their kids back - I'll give it another five to 10 years before we actually see solid Rays fans. The 100 percent, full-blood Rays fans. Where you have the Yankees or Boston here, and the majority of them are Yankees or Boston fans, because they're transplants. And so you'll see more and more as the years go on, five to 10 years you'll see more Rays fans replacing Yankees fans."

It's not that the Rays aren't putting an exciting team on the field. This is, after all, a team that battled back from a 7-nothing deficit and beat the Yankees in the bottom of the 12th to surge into the playoffs - and cap an historic comeback season.

But this year, only the Oakland A's had a lower average attendance at games.

So what's going on? It's true than most other baseball teams have a bigger population base to draw from. When you take that into account, the Rays are in the middle of the pack.

But we still lag behind other small-market teams, like the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds.

So why aren't we flocking to the Trop? Mike Maerz blames the traffic. He's a student from New York who has to crawl along I-275 from the University of Tampa.

"I think they would do a lot better if they moved this kind of stadium over to the Tampa area, because I think they lose a lot of their fan base," Maerz says. "The Rays would do a lot better if they could capture like the UT and a lot of the USF fans. I come to one or two games a year, because it takes 45 minutes to get here."

The day after the Rays clinched a playoff spot, St. Petersburg resident Jane Chapin was shopping in the Rays store at the Trop. She partly blames the anemic attendence on the bad economy - and our smaller market.

"We can’t compare Tampa Bay with Boston or New York," she says. "You're talking decades and generations of history with their teams there and the sports team mentality that’s built up in the Northeast, and towns like Chicago and even LA. The larger markets that have had major league for a long time. It will take generations to get it that strong here, so I think it would be more fitting to compare us to Arizona and Colorado and the newer markets. How are we doing against those guys?"

Well, not too good, Jane. We may have our reasons for not filling the Trop. But as Tom Hanks said in "A League of Her Own," there's no crying in baseball.

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