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In surprise, Tampa Bay Rays attendance up 28 percent this year

Tampa Bay Devil RaysWe’re not entirely sure if there are deeper meanings here, but so far this year the Tampa Bay Rays are the surprise team in baseball, posting the best record on the field and enjoying a 28 percent boost at the box office.

As of today the Rays are averaging 17,819 fans per game at the Trop (#23 in the majors, outpacing Detroit and Cleveland and virtually the same as the White Sox), more than 28 percent higher than 2022’s 13,927 fans per game. Admittedly, that includes a weekend series agains the New York Yankees where the Rays posted some big numbers, but then again last year’s numbers included plenty of home Yankees game.

Attendance at the Trop–certainly one of the worst venues in Major League Baseball, behind the decrepit Oakland Coliseum–has always been a challenge for the Rays. Historically, the team’s front office has collectively shrugged away the Trop–it is what it is–and focused on building an affordable, winning team in an effort to draw fans.

But one thing that’s well known in the baseball world: winning teams do not automatically packing the ballpark, no matter what the hardcore fans like to think. And this isn’t a first run at winning for the Rays; they didn’t draw in the past during four straight playoff appearances. So what’s different this year? We think there are two main reasons.

First, despite the ill-fated proposal to split the team’s home games between Montreal and Tampa Bay, in the last year the team has have shown a deep devotion to the market. Unlike the Oakland Athletics, the Rays ownership has not threatened to move the team and is working on two new-ballpark plans that would keep the team in Tampa Bay. There is a familiar cycle for teams seeking new homes where attendance will suffer as the team trashes its current home, but we’re currently not seeing that in Tampa Bay. But Rays TV ratings are good, and Tampa Bay is a pretty strong market–one that MLB would prefer not to lose.

Second, the Rays has upped their efforts to draw more casual fans to the ballpark. That means more and better promos as well as some upgrades in the fan experience, per the Tampa Bay Times:

But there has been an unmistakable vibe inside the Trop this season that cannot be explained entirely by the team’s record-breaking start in the standings. It’s louder, livelier, more festive. New promotions, increased marketing, unique dining options, inventive ticket plans and sharper in-game programming….

It’s almost as if the old place swallowed a generation’s worth of barbs and emerged in a new era of nerdy chic.

“It would have been easy to say, ‘Let’s not invest in this building because we’re hoping to build a new one some day.’ But that’s not the approach we’ve taken,” said Rays chief business officer Bill Walsh. “It’s been more, ‘What can we learn here? How can Tropicana Field be our laboratory over the next five-plus years?’

One big change is something we can expect to see in any new Rays ballpark: a more open approach to seating. Regular readers will know how we’ve been harping for years on the benefits of offering nontraditional seating arrangements; no one expects most fans at a game to be glued to their seats for nine innings, and having plenty of viewing spots and dining options at the ballpark is conductive for fans to create their own unique experiences every time they enter the ballpark. (That’s why the cheap ballpark passes work, both in bringing fans to the ballpark in the first place and then convincing them to return.)

The Trop comes from an era where this philosophy can only go so far, but Rays ownership attributes this change in philosophy to the better attendance numbers. Hey, the Trop is what it is–but a change in attitudes this season certainly seems to be working.

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