Tampa Bay Rays’ management has not declared it will look into relocating the franchise if a new home for the Rays is not built in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Which is probably a good thing, because if a recent survey of local residents is any indication, such threats would probably fall upon deaf ears.
A St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 phone survey revealed that two-thirds of Tampa area residents surveyed (300 apiece in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties) would not support a taxpayer-funded facility, even if it meant the Rays would leave town. According to the survey, only a quarter of Tampa area residents were in favor of a tax increase to fund a new stadium for the Rays, whose current home, the Tropicana Dome, is considered one of the most outdated in Major League Baseball. The results were reported earlier this week in editions of the St. Petersburg Times.
The reluctance of local residents to assist the Rays is no surprise. Unemployment in the Tampa area hovers around 12 percent, well above the national average, and residents have been reluctant to fund a light rail system in Tampa.
In addition, the Rays haven’t made much of an impact with fans since they began play in 1998. The expansion season was the only one in which the Rays — who were known as the Devil Rays until 2008 — finished in the top half of the American League in attendance. They finished dead last seven straight years from 2001 through 2007.
The Rays did not give fans much reason to come to the ballpark in losing at least 90 games in each of their first 11 seasons, but the Rays won the American League pennant in 2008 and the AL East championship in 2010 and have still played to sparse crowds. This year’s team ranked ninth in the AL in attendance, the franchise’s highest finish since its debut season, but had the smallest average crowd of any playoff team (23,025) and actually experienced a small decrease from 2009, when the Rays drew an average of 23,148 fans per game. The Rays gave away tickets to a late-season game and needed until just hours before first pitch to sell out the decisive Game Five of the AL Division Series against the Texas Rangers in October.
The Rays are not likely to improve on the field or at the gate next year: Stars such as Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit and Jason Bartlett have already left via free agency or trade and closer Rafael Soriano is expected to follow suit. Trade rumors have also surrounded Rays starters Matt Garza and James Shields.
The Rays are not the only area team struggling for a foothold in the area. Fans have displayed little interest this fall in the NFL’s Buccaneers, which are 9-6 and still alive in the race for the NFC’s final playoff berth a year after finishing 3-13. But the Buccaneers failed to sell out any of their eight home games, which meant those games were not televised in the Tampa area, and the locals have been dissatisfied with the efforts and investment of the Glazer family, which owns the team and used the threat of relocation to land the Buccaneers their current home, Raymond James Stadium, in the late 1990s.