I’ve never had to explain an empty stadium for any other team more than I do the Rays. Whenever I’m at a sports bar, and the crowd at a game on TV is noticeably sparse, such as in the case of the Arizona Coyotes or the Oakland Athletics, the conversation simply ends at “the team sucks.”
This should be the general logic of sports. If a team is under-performing, or ownership is more dysfunctional than a TV sitcom family, then fans should not be expected to appear in the stands. Whenever it’s the Rays though, and I’m seated next to someone who’s part of a different fanbase, all of the sudden they go into a tirade about how ungrateful Rays fans are, how, if their team made it to the world series, then followed it up by having the best record in baseball, they would be in the stands for as many games as possible. Even though I’m a Yankees fan, I still feel a sense of obligation to stick up for the Rays, and explain the real reasons that those stands remain empty.
Inevitably though, whenever I go online to read about the Rays most recent failure in securing a ballpark, the comments are filled with a contingent of Rays fans who insist that nothing is actually wrong with what they have now. If that was the case, then something is wrong with the fanbase, and the team needs to pack up and head to Nashville as soon as possible.
The Trop, as the stadium is locally referred to, already has a laundry list of problems on the inside. It has aged well beyond its years, being the oldest operating pro-sports venue in the Bay Area. The atmosphere is cavernous even on good days, making crowd nice comparable to a church-mouse in a library. Even the whole aesthetic of the stadium feels apocalyptic, with all the concrete and gray everywhere, making it about as lively as a crypt.
Beyond any of that however, is the biggest problem, which is the stadium’s location. It may be fine with its promximity to downtown St. Petersburg which is like the Brooklyn to Tampa’s Manhattan. New York is also an interesting place when considering the Rays problems. After all, only 2 of their major sports teams even play in Manhattan, the Rangers and the Knicks. Their other major sports teams are all on the outer-borough areas. The Yankees are in the Bronx, with the Mets in Queens, while the Giants and the Jets share a home in New Jersey at Metlife Stadium. Even though those teams are not in the most desirable of locations, they still have plenty of butts in the seats. Would you like to take a guess as to why?
People can actually get to those stadiums.
Here is a map of the Tampa Bay area. You may notice that Raymond James Stadium and Amalie area are both on the other side of Old Tampa Bay, the part that is connected to the whole rest of the state. That is a smart thing. Inversely, St. Petersburg is on the other side, across the water. If a fan is living in Brandon, for example, and working in downtown Tampa, and they want to go to a Rays game afterwork, there seems to be every hurdle set up trying to stop them. Assuming their shift ends at 5, they have to drive themselves across the Bay, dealing with Florida’s legendarily bad rush hour traffic, because there is no mass transit option that can take people from Tampa to St. Pete. (And no, the Ferry doesn’t count.) Assuming they want to have a drink, they may have to catch a ride service which is an absurd bill going both ways. Then there’s the actual ride back to Brandon, which can tack on another 30 minutes to the ride. Someone going to see a Rays game that lives in a Tampa suburb might be spending more time in the seat of the car than they spend in the seat they bought a ticket for.
If the Rays are still committed to the Tropicana site, which they may have to be after failure(s) of relocating to Ybor, then there ought to be more of a commitment between Tampa and St. Petersburg to create new transit options to and from the stadium, whether it be cross county buses, subsidizing ride services, or expanding the ferry service beyond the point of it being a novelty.
People can forgive a lot in a bad stadium as long as they can actually get to it. It’s better for them to hate the hot dog they ordered at the park, than complain about the food as they watch the game at a bar. Every problem the Trop has also exists in the Tokyo Dome, but that barn sells out, not because the Yomiuri Giants are this transcendent vision of everything good in Nippon Pro Baseball, as a matter of fact, they suck (go Baystars), not even because they have more people than Tampa, (do you really think Yankees stadium would sell out if people had to drive to the Bronx?) but because people can actually GET TO THE STADIUM.