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Tampa Bay Rays: If a Team Came To Play and No One Was There to Watch It…

The Tampa Bay Rays have won the American League East for the second time in three years. The Rays won the division with the second-best record in the major leagues at 96-66, only one game behind its 2008 World Series opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies.

But for all the success of the Rays this season, its wins did not translate to ticket sales. The Rays came in 22nd out of 30 teams in home attendance, and many things have been attributed to this anomaly, but which are on the ball and which are off base?

Rays attendance has been a topic for as long as the Rays have been parked in St. Petersburg. Locally, the blame has been assigned to everything from the economy and bad fans to a transient population and poor location. This is my attempt to explain the mystery.

Is it the economy?

There’s no arguing the United States is in an economic downturn. Hillsborough County is the Ground Zero of the housing crash, making money seem especially scarce. But is it?

I once had a conversation with a ticket scalper about how he determines how much to charge—or rather, overcharge—for tickets. He told me that there are three indicators to any city he travels to judge what the local economy can bear. The three are: the average price of a steak dinner; the average price of a hotel room; and the average price of a prostitute.

He went into much greater detail, and I have no experience with hookers, but judging from the different cities I’ve stayed and dined in, compared to the prices I’ve overpaid for certain tickets, I’d say he was dead on.

With nationally renowned steak houses like Bern’s and Charley’s, Tampa boasts some of the finest steak dinners in the country. Depending on the time of year, a hotel room can range from sort-of-expensive to insanely expensive. I don’t know about the call girl angle, but I do know that Tampa has more strip clubs per square mile than any other city in America. That has to count for something.

So, is the economy that poor?

I believe the numbers are a little skewed because Tampa is a tourist destination as well as a renowned convention destination. That being said, the prices aren’t coming down anywhere as far as I can tell.

What the Tampa fan has evolved to is a mix between a transient fan and a fair-weather fan. Tampa has a high percentage of citizens who aren’t from Tampa originally. For the most part, the people seem to be pooled from New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan. These fans have a general interest in the Rays, but not enough to buy tickets unless the Rays are playing a team they root for.

Of course once the play-offs start, all bets are off, because the fair-weather fan part kicks in. Tampa Bay has home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs but, as fate would have it, was given the midday time slot (on a Wednesday and Thursday) to start its playoff run. Both games sold out instantly.

That tells me people can afford the games, since playoff games are much more expensive, and they can take off work to attend. They just don’t care enough to go.

Is it the stadium and or stadium location?

I find this to be a fairly lame excuse. In other cities, traffic sucks with or without a baseball game. A winning team or a new stadium generally will draw a crowd regardless of the traffic or the natural barrier of the bay.

Tropicana is no tourist destination when compared to its contemporaries like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, so ownership needed to get creative. To its credit, Tampa Bay has been innovative in recent years in its approach to draw fans to the stadium and ease the impact on the wallet. It offered free parking to fans who carpooled, and allowed fans to bring food into the stadium.

These two things alone were revolutionary in the professional team-fan relationship. But if fans of a team have the means to buy a ticket, and they won’t have to pay for parking or food, and they still don’t go to the game, then there are two assumptions: They aren’t really fans, or, as I alluded to earlier, they just don’t care enough to go.


How many sports/entertainment dollars are there to spread around?

The Tampa Bays Rays have to compete for sports entertainment dollars with the Tampa Bay Lightning, The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the University of South Florida Bulls. But after ten-plus years of sellouts, the Buccaneers’ first two games of the 2010 season have been blacked out as per NFL rules for not selling out. Arguably, fewer season tickets for the Bucs could translate to more tickets for the Rays.

The Lightning had a poor showing in the standings last season, but still managed to fill over 78% of the seats available. This ranked 21st in the NHL, but just above the Lightning was the New Jersey Devils at 20th with a much larger metropolitan area and a far superior product on the ice. For 41 home games, the Lightning average attendance was 15,497. For 81 home games the Rays average attendance was 23,035.

One would think that, with the higher cost of Lightning games, and a team that may finish below .500 again, more dollars would be free for the Rays. Now, hockey attendance could be attributed to the fact that hockey has a nearly non-existent national television presence, and hockey fans only generally care about hockey, but they can watch the local team on television.

Hockey could probably broaden its fan base with more television exposure and more marketing. Hockey fans are generally middle to upper class white people, but that can change with the right marketing and right concentration in its base area. Baseball fans stretch across all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, which brings up a very important question:

Who exactly are the Rays marketing to?


There seems to be a stark contrast between who the Rays are advertising to and who actually lives in Hillsborough County. According to 2009 Census estimates, only 56% of Hillsborough County’s population claim to be exclusively Caucasian. That of course means that 44% of the population is considered minority.

A more telling number comes from Hillsborough County Public Schools, where only 40% of the student body is white versus 60% minority. This means that in the next 10 to 15 years the ticket buying public in this area will be a majority minority.

In order for the Rays to increase, or at the least, maintain its ticket sales, it must market to these minorities, with more than one Hispanic Day a year with the phrase “Los Rays” sprawled across its jerseys, and one Jackie Robinson day to pacify the black population.

I went back and researched the amount to money the Rays spent on advertising with the two most prominent minority-owned newspapers in the area, La Gaceta and the African-American targeted Florida Sentinel Bulletin. Over the past 10 years the Rays have spent exactly NOTHING with either paper. No ads, no ticket give-aways….nada. Same goes for the Buccaneers and Lightning.

It seems the policy is that only whites have money, and therefore only whites will be marketed to, in print at least, with the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune-owned papers. I called the Rays to inquire about its advertising dollars and where they went, and was told that the Rays’ advertising budget was not available for public consumption….

…neither were their advertising dollars, if you have dark skin.

Like I said, it’s not only the Rays, it’s the Bucs and the Lightning too. With the ever-changing population of the Tampa Bay area, whether the teams like it or not, the minority population will be the buying public in the future, if it isn’t already.

The Rays need to remember that just because a name ends in “Z” it doesn’t mean that the person is an uneducated illegal, and just because someone is black, it doesn’t mean he or she is on welfare. This is an extremely diverse area where Hispanics are judges and Blacks are college presidents. The local teams need to respect that, or the dollars they get today will turn to dinero for someone else mañana.

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Doc Gooden Owes Me

Former New York Mets’ pitcher and all-around phenom Dwight Gooden was recently inducted into the Mets‘ Hall of Fame. Earlier this year he was also arrested by Franklin Lakes Township police in New Jersey for driving under the influence with his 5-year-old son in the car, among other charges and is awaiting his day in court.

When Gooden was inducted into the Mets’ Hall of Fame, also sitting by him was fellow inductee and partner-in-turmoil, Darryl Strawberry. The two will be forever entwined because of their meteoric rise to fame and equally meteoric fall from grace. Through the years, it seemed that Gooden would be the one who would clean up his act and Strawberry would be the one who never would get it.

Compared to Gooden, Strawberry seemed like a monster. There were spousal abuse accusations and non-stop cocaine use among the litter of strikes against Strawberry, while Gooden’s demons where purely drug-related and seemed fixable. Today Strawberry serves as a citizen who seems to have truly cleaned himself up while Gooden just can’t seem to wake the *&%# up.

I grew up a Mets fan in New Jersey and was 11 years old when Dwight Gooden won the rookie of the year in 1984. From that point, Gooden was my biggest hero. To this day I still believe that his 1985 Cy Young season was the single greatest year a pitcher has had in the modern era. At the most impressionable age a boy could have, Dwight Gooden was the greatest thing imaginable.


My friends and I would cut school to watch him pitch, and it seemed between 1984 and 1988, he might have become one of the greatest pitchers of all time. His rising fastball was electric and nearly unhittable. His curveball, nicknamed Lord Charles because calling it Uncle Charlie like a normal curveball was too pedestrian a name for a ball that came in at 12 on the clock and dropped off the table at 6. His moniker, Doctor K, was a tribute to his strikeout prowess.

Alas, no one as hyped and dominant as Gooden can ever live up to the kind of pressure and temptation that arises as a teenager who owned New York (see:Tiger Woods). When Gooden was thriving and at the top of the world, there weren’t too many other people to get good advice from to steer him from the ills of young fame and fortune (especially not on those Mets teams). Drug rehab and arrests derailed Doc’s surefire Hall of Fame career.

Dwight Gooden broke my heart as a youth and went on to continually break my heart as an adult. He taught me that you can’t put a person on a pedestal just because he’s a good athlete, or because he’s on ESPN. He taught me at too young an age that fame is fleeting and that boyhood idols were fallible.

I also learned that a person needs to own up to his mistakes and learn from them. Dwight Gooden has never learned, and still, after all this time and these many chances, it is still heartbreaking to see someone who was at the top of the world fail so magnificently and so publicly time after time after time.


People outside of the world of drugs don’t understand what it’s like for addicts, and addicts don’t ever know how bad off they are. Through love and understanding many people overcome their addictions and demons, Dwight has not. At some point it takes personal accountability, a quality Gooden does not seem to possess.

Gooden will keep failing until he actually learns that there is a price to pay society for being so loved and being given so many chances. I don’t know what it’s like to be in his shoes, and I think that we put way to many people in jail for drugs when they could be served better through other methods, but Dwight Gooden needs to learn how to be a member of society, and not a member of the got off easy again club. I don’t know what that equates to in years or punishment, but I’m done with Dwight Gooden.

If you care, Doc, there is also a price for breaking the heart of an innocent 11 year-old-boy who idolized you. You lost your biggest fan. For once, do me a favor and win me back. We both need it, and you owe me.

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Homecoming for Sweet Lou: Piniella Retirement Shows Sports’ Humanity

Lou Piniella is home.

Sweet Lou, the manager of the Chicago Cubs and four other teams since 1986, has called it a career, and what a career it was.

Piniella ranks 14th on the all-time wins list for managers, he’s been a three-time manager of the year, and he won the World Series as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990.

As a player, he was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1969 and an All-Star in 1972 with the Kansas City Royals. He ended his playing career with the New York Yankees in 1984, but not before winning two World Series championships with those Bronx Bombers in 1977 and 1978.

Piniella has lived in the public’s light for over 40 years. During that time he’s been a winner and an enigmatic personality. He will be remembered for his famous tirades on the field as much as anything else. More than once he’s been known to rip first base right out of the ground and toss it across the field, and his post-game press conferences are the stuff of legend.

Yes, Lou Piniella wore his heart on his sleeve, and there was never a moment he couldn’t be called genuine. He loved the game of baseball; I’m sure still loves it, but he had to walk away. In a profession where all he need do is desire a job and it would be his, for as much money as he would ask, he left for something more important. Sweet Lou has come home to take care of his mother.

Throughout the history of sport there have been several moments that created fanfare, tears, and praise when sickness and death of family members have inspired and sometimes crippled athletes.

There was Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen, who fell twice in the 1988 Olympics after learning of his sister Jane’s death to leukemia. Jansen ended up winning a gold medal in the 1994 Olympics in a world record-setting time. He dedicated the skate to his departed sister and took a victory lap with his one-year-old daughter, Jane.

For me the biggest example was Brett Favre’s performance in a Monday Night Football game in December of 2003. The Green Bay Packers were facing the Oakland Raiders. The day before, Favre’s father was taken by a stroke, but taking what he knew of his father, Favre played in that game, knowing his father would have wanted him to play. 

From the start of the game, you could feel something special was happening. Favre was crisp and focused, and even on the plays when he wasn’t, his players seemed to make unbelievable plays for their mourning leader. Packer receivers caught touchdown passes that seemed impossible to grab in what could only be described as divine intervention.

Favre threw four touchdowns in the first half alone in the 41-7 Green Bay victory. Even Raider fans, known for their brashness and hatred of all things not wearing the Raiders’ silver and black, were compelled to cheer for Favre. I would dare say that anyone who witnessed that final tribute from son to father and didn’t get choked up must have an empty space where their heart should be.

It’s been a strange marriage between sadness and sports. We see athletes as icons, sometimes infallible models of what can be achieved when a person is truly dedicated. We cheer with them when they succeed, and we weep when they fail.

Sometimes, more often than we would care to admit, tragedy strikes, and we see our heroes as one of us. We feel their pain and in our own way try to lift them up as if they were our own family, because in a way, they are.

67-year-old Lou Piniella has come home to take care of his ailing 90-year-old mother. He did it without fanfare, just a quick press conference to let people know that Sunday, August 22, would be his last game as manager.

A somber Piniella made his announcement, and while he wept at the thought of leaving the game he’s loved for all these years, we wept with him. Not for leaving the game, but for the realization of a fact that we all know to be true…we are all mortal, and we will all suffer sad times. 

Above fame and accolades and money comes family. Many of us have already felt what Piniella is going through, and the rest of us know one day the pain will be ours. We wish him a peaceful and loving resolve to this transitional time in his life.

Sweet Lou is no longer a player in the majors, nor is he a manager in the majors. He’s once again become one of us, a boy from West Tampa who loves his mother.

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