The seats are still lonely at Tropicana Field. Still isolated. Still blue. Still empty, too. The Tampa Bay Rays, and stop us if you’ve heard this one before, are struggling at the gate once again. Over the last three nights. They have played the lowest crowd they have ever had against the New York Yankees (Tuesday), and the second lowest (Monday), and the third lowest (Wednesday). Blame who you wish, and feel how you want about another story about the Rays’ awful attendance. But when not even the Yankees can bail out the Rays, it is safe to say that Tampa Bay has fallen upon hard times. For the three games, in fact, the Rays were still short of a sellout crowd. They drew a total of 32,960 for the three days. In its history at Tropicana Field, the Rays have drawn 25 single game crowds against the Yankees that were larger. For the season, the Rays are in 29th place in attendance, barely above Cleveland. Of course, there are fans who howl any time there is a story about the Rays’ attendance, and after all this time, it’s a fair question. Why does it matter? After all, most of us acknowledged long ago that the Rays didn’t draw diddly, and as long as the team was at the Trop, it was unlikely to change. So is that attendance is down yet again really news? Well, if the Rays were on their way to excellence once again, that would be news, right? So it seems there is room for a reasoned discussion on attendance and what it means. Besides, if this fight turns ugly, and there turns out to be a chance that the Rays leave, wouldn’t you prefer a media that keeps you aware of it? Sure, there are reasons why the crowd stays away. You’ve listed them a hundred times. School is still in, and the hockey team is still playing. The Trop still feels like a tobacco warehouse, and it’s still away from the population center. The Rays have lost Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon and Ben Zobrist. There are precious few established players for fans to say “hey, you want to go see this guy play?” It seems that all the discussions about a new park have left the fans cold, a chilling prospect as the St. Petersburg politicians gird for the fight to keep this team in town. It isn’t a great corporate town. The premium seat pricing has not been embraced. It’s too easy to stay home and watch it on TV. Oh, yeah. And the Yankees aren’t nearly the draw they used to be, either. Say what you want about the Rays. But a large portion of this crowd has always been partly pro-Yankee. When Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were playing there, frankly, they were a bigger draw than they are this year. Still, the Yankees draw just fine in other places. These were by far the three lowest crowds they’ve played in front of all year. Here, New York has played six dates this year in the Trop, and their largest crowd has been 21,791. Consider the previous seasons. In their 15 previous games at the Trop, the Yankees had only one of their previous 15 games draw less than than 21,791. For the Rays, the most troubling aspect is that it’s getting worse. After 19 home dates last year, the Rays had drawn 358,477. This year, it’s 299,363. So what’s the solution? Maybe better marketing. Maybe more discounts. Maybe it’s time to stop the stadium wars and find a solution that works for both sides.
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