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Rays: Prove to us Tampa Bay can support baseball

Tampa Bay RaysWe’re seeing a new strategy on how the Tampa Bay Rays are addressing their ballpark situation: ask for help on the marketing front and raise the distinct possibility the area can’t support professional baseball.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg had a much-anticipated meeting with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster yesterday to discuss the state of things for the team. While the state of Tropicana Field was not addressed, two more bigger themes emerged: the team needs regional help on the marketing front, and the team’s search of a new home will transcend the Tampa Bay area.

“When (Sternberg) says he wants to look everywhere (for a new stadium), he means it,” Foster told a local radio station. “It’s not just Tampa Bay … I don’t think they see Hillsborough County as the answer.”

Rays attendance has lagged since the team’s inception. In the team’s early days, futility on the field and ineptitude in the front office were attributed to the team’s inability to draw. New ownership and winning ways have helped pick up things in the box office, but the sad fact is that the team’s best year attendance-wise was 1998 — the first season of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Last years mark of 1.529 million represented a drop from the 1.8 million or so the team attracted annually in 2008-2010.

The constants throughout the Rays history: Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay market.

The two themes raised by Sternberg are intertwined. Forget the state of Tropicana Field: a new ballpark won’t help if Tampa Bay is indeed incapable of supporting three major-league franchises. The challenge issued by Sternberg is assistance in proving the market can indeed support professional baseball:

“If the region wants the Rays to stay in the region, then Tampa Bay needs to support this team this year by putting their backsides in the seat and going to the game,” Foster said in the radio interview.

That’s a pretty bold challenge. It takes attention away from the team’s biggest liability — Tropicana Field — and puts the onus on local officials (including those from Tampa) to show support for the team. If there’s not adequate support shown, the Rays can argue they gave it their best shot. In that case, there’s really only one way for Tampa Bay to show its love: build a new ballpark for the team, Tropicana Field lease be damned.

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