On May 28, the Tampa Bay Rays hosted the division-rival Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field.
It was a fairly unremarkable game on the field. The Rays, owners of the American League’s fourth-best record at 32-19, handled a hapless Toronto squad in a 3-1 victory. That wasn’t what made the headlines, however.
The announced attendance for the game was 5,786. It was the smallest crowd in the 21-year history of Tropicana Field.
The Rays, as well as the Miami Marlins, have struggled with attendance since their inception. Baseball fans in Florida have stayed away regardless of stadiums, players and success on the field. We’re about to enter our fourth decade of Major League Baseball in the Sunshine State – if things haven’t improved by now, I don’t think they ever will.
There have been 57 combined seasons between the Rays and Marlins. They’ve eclipsed 2,000,000 overall fans in just four of them. Both teams did it in their inaugural seasons, and the Marlins did it again in a world championship year (1997) and the first year of a new ballpark (2012).
I’m not trying to knock the fans of either team. Both have some very loyal, passionate supporters who spend their hard-earned money to watch teams that often (especially in Miami) aren’t very good. The problem is that, in relation to other teams, there aren’t enough of these fans.
The league average is about 27,000 people per game. The Rays average less than 14,000 people, and the Marlins under 10,000.
Winning usually cures attendance woes. The Rays, however, have done plenty of that. They’ve had seven seasons above .500 since 2008 and have been pioneers on winning games with a small budget. Despite that, they’ve never been better than 22nd in attendance over that stretch. It’s the same story with the Marlins – in their last playoff season (2003), they were 28th in attendance.
If winning can’t solve attendance problems, the other tried-and-true method is to build a new stadium. That approach has failed for the Marlins, however, who moved from an outdoor suburban football stadium to a retractable roof ballpark in the heart of Miami in 2012. Their attendance last year was the worst in franchise history.
Attendance for Tampa Bay would undoubtedly go up in a new ballpark at a new location. But if a team in first place is second-to-last in attendance right now, how many people will show up for a losing team once the novelty of a new stadium wears off?
Last year, MLB attendance was the lowest it has been since 2003. Miami drew the fewest fans of any team and was the first team since 2004 to draw below 1,000,000 in a season. Tampa Bay was second-to-last despite winning 90 games.
League attendance is down again this year. I don’t think either the Rays or the Marlins are teams that will buck that trend. The window is closing. Maybe MLB would be better off if the only games it hosted in Florida were during spring training.
Follow Sam Campisano on Twitter @samcampisano. Contact him at [email protected].