Will a spike in attendance help Rays get a stadium built in St. Pete?

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ST. PETERSBURG — Nobody ever said Major League Baseball box offices were created equal. Take a crowd of 18,255, for instance. At Busch Stadium in St. Louis, local fans would call that a disgrace.

And yet, at Tropicana Field, it is a symbol of growth. Of optimism and hope. Maybe even an additional incentive for a billion-dollar investment.

More than two-thirds of the way through their home schedule, the Rays are averaging an announced crowd of 18,255 per game. That puts Tampa Bay 27th in the league, ahead of only two teams having historically bad seasons (Oakland and Kansas City) and one with a perpetually indifferent fan base (Miami).

But context matters and, in this case, it suggests there is more to the story. Tampa Bay has a year-over-year increase of 29.1%, which is among the top half-dozen improvements in MLB in 2023. At their current pace, the Rays will finish with their best annual attendance in 10 years.

That’s obviously good news. Certainly encouraging.

But is it relevant to the discussion of a new stadium?

“We’ve said for the past couple of years that what happens on the ground in St. Pete is going to have a significant effect on our outlook for the franchise,” Rays president Matt Silverman said. “We’re looking at some real positives in terms of the year-over-year growth, the overall interest and the general direction attendance is pointing in.

“We’re coming off a low base and we’re still 27th in baseball but we can see momentum building on the attendance side and it gives us more confidence in St. Pete as a location for the team for the next several generations.”

The Rays are currently negotiating with St. Pete and Pinellas County officials regarding costs for the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field land with a new stadium as a centerpiece. Scuttlebutt suggests an offer is on the table but the Rays and development partner Hines are seeking more help with infrastructure costs.

There is also considerable chatter that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg might be willing to sell a large chunk of the team in order to raise capital for the team’s investment in a new stadium, a plan that Sternberg first considered when contemplating the sister city plan with Montreal.

Fans have been more willing to make the trek to Tropicana Field this season.
Fans have been more willing to make the trek to Tropicana Field this season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Now, we’ve been down this road before on other stadium proposals so you might want to avoid excessive optimism. But the combination of a development plan and bigger crowds this season have made the Trop site seem more desirable than in the past.

“St. Pete is changing and the growth downtown is part of what will help sustain a stadium in St. Petersburg,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice. “I know that a lot of folks feel that if you move to Tampa you immediately get X-thousand more people every night. Is some of that narrative diminished a little bit by the growth in St. Pete and excitement for the team? I don’t know that anyone can really know that for sure.”

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The Rays have been open about their desire to be in downtown Tampa, but funding for a stadium on the Hillsborough side of the bay has never matched the team’s requests. That’s why 2023 attendance numbers could play an outsized role in future stadium development despite being a small sample size of the team’s 26-year stay in St. Pete.

A case could be made that generational support for the team is finally showing signs of life, and that demographics in downtown St. Pete have been changing rapidly over the last decade. The City Council recently got a report from its StPete2050 planning group that spelled out potential growth over the next three decades.

“If we keep growing at the rate we’re going, we’re expecting another 90,000 people in the city of St. Petersburg over the next 30 years,” said St. Pete Council member Ed Montanari. “If I’m a Major League Baseball franchise and in a city that has this projected growth rate and you could capture part of that market to attend games, I would think that would be a very, very positive city to be in.”

It’s important to point out that some of the attendance growth can be attributed to the team’s three-month stay atop the American League East to begin the season, as well as the Rays offering a wider variety of ticket options, including monthly passes for standing room-only tickets.

Does the 29% increase in attendance mean a 29% increase in ticket revenues for the Rays? No, because a good portion of those additional tickets are at much lower price points. But those cheaper tickets can generate extra revenue through parking and concessions, not to mention the vibe inside the stadium with a bigger crowd.

Attendance is still drastically short of MLB’s median number of around 31,000 but the difference between 2022 and 2023 has been stark. A year ago, 12.3% of the crowds were above 20,000. This season, it’s 41.1%. Similarly, more than 27% of games in 2022 had crowds below 10,000. This year, the percentage is 5.4.

“You’ve heard us talk over the years that we just want to be league average (in attendance). I don’t think we get to league average in St. Pete or in Tampa,” Silverman said. “But I do think we can move up in the rankings and have steady, dependable attendance that will allow us to run our business and run our team in a way that increases our chances of staying competitive and gives us a little more margin for error in the way we operate.”

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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