National pundits are piling on the Tampa Bay Rays after two of its star players, Evan Longoria and David Price, expressed displeasure at the team attracting only 12,446 fans to their Monday night game against the Baltimore Orioles, a possible playoff-clincher.

That’s pretty much the typical Baltimore Orioles game on a school-year Monday night at home. If the Rays were still a bad team, they’d be lucky to draw 9,000 on that day against that team.

But the so-called attendance woes of the Rays are really not as bad as they look. While average attendance is down 77 people per game (yes, that’s individual people; the percentage loss is about 0.3%), they still upped their rank in the AL to 9th out of 14 teams. That’s up from their 11th-place attendance finish in 2009. Even in 2008 they finished 12th out of 14.

The Rays haven’t ranked this high since their inaugural season, when they ranked 7th.

And just because people are not attending games as much as the national pundits claim they should, doesn’t mean fans don’t care.

This summer, an article from the Sports Business Journal showed the Rays at 7th among all 30 MLB teams in both radio and TV ratings at the 2010 All-Star Break, with a 14.4% increase in radio and a 70.9% increase in TV. In terms of total numbers of households watching games, the Rays were 8th overall with just short of 100,000 households tuning in on average.

Plus, give the numbers some historical context. Just 40 years ago, owners would kill for the 22,900 per game the Rays are drawing in 2010. Only one team drew more than that in 1970: the New York Mets, who drew 32,000 per game coming off their miracle World Series season.

In 1960, only two teams drew more than the Rays did in 2010. And the Yankees and Red Sox weren’t among them.

The reason why the Rays’ numbers look so bad now is because of the economics of sports today. With players’ salaries sky high, it takes selling out the stadium every single game just to pay their salaries. The situation would only be made worse if a new stadium were added to the mix, since that would put a premium on ticket prices.

Some pundits are even bringing up the draconian solution of relocation. And relocation, as in out of Tampa Bay, not merely to Tampa.

The problem with that is, relocation to where? Such a move would require three years’ lead time because nobody has an MLB-class stadium that doesn’t already have an MLB team. And Tampa Bay is among the largest media markets in America. Who can give the Rays a better situation at this current time?

There are two fixes to this, and they’re really quite simple.

First, the Rays need to run a string of consecutive playoff appearances.

What made the Atlanta Braves a power in the 1990s was the fact that they were a virtual lock for the playoffs every single year for 14 straight seasons.

Atlanta is really not much bigger than the Tampa Bay area. In 1990, the last of the “Rotten Years”, they drew only 12,000 per game. In 1991, it doubled to 26,000. That was followed by consecutive year-over-year increases of 10,000 per game in 1992 and 1993.

One of the reasons that didn’t happen in Tampa Bay is a perfect storm of bad economics (the housing bubble hit Florida particularly hard) and not making the playoffs in 2009. If the Rays can build a winning tradition, which will be difficult in the American League East, it will attract permanent business. 

Second, the team needs to move to Tampa.

The fact of the matter is, the biggest problem with the Rays is the location of their stadium, Tropicana Field. That was a big issue with the MLB’s expansion plans.  Although many claim they hate Tropicana Field (which has really improved in appearance considerably under Stuart Sternberg’s ownership), the biggest problem is its location.

The unique geography of Tampa Bay makes getting around very difficult. It’s 20 miles from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg, where Tropicana Field is. And downtown Tampa is the closest place to its side of the Howard Frankland Bridge, the main link between the two.

If you’re from the larger population bases north and east of Tampa, it’s an additional 10+ miles. People who live on the other side of the bay are faced with a 45-minute drive. This is complicated by the traffic bottleneck on the Tampa side of the bridge. A fix is expected to be opened in 2011.

To the pundits who say the drive doesn’t matter, I challenge them this: You try driving through Tampa at 5:30 PM on a weekday.

The best place for the Rays to be is on the Tampa side of the metro area. This goes against what I said about a new stadium being a problem, but cutting 30 minutes each way–and a minimum of two gallons of gas–out of the drive to the stadium will attract a large bump in attendance by itself, bringing more fans from Tampa and Orlando.

Add a retractable roof, and people will be even more likely to come. The Minnesota Twins got an attendance bump of over 11,000 per game at their new open-air stadium, Target Field, a bump that will likely stick with the team’s new-found success. This is also the bump the Florida Marlins are hoping for when they open their new stadium in 2012.

The smell of real grass will do that.

The Tampa Bay Rays do have fans. They are just unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices that are necessary given the reality of the team’s location. This had been compounded by the fact that the previous ownership spent their first 10 seasons not investing in a team worthy of the fans’ commitment.

But when the team is good, the fans do come. The Rays’ situation is a far cry from being the worst in the sport anymore. And if 2008 proved anything, it’s that the fans will come when the title is at stake.

It will take time, and perhaps a little help, but Tampa Bay can and will support baseball.

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