The Tampa Bay Rays have been remarkably successful on the field the past four seasons. Despite playing in the most competitive division in baseball, they have averaged 92 wins per season, won the AL East twice, and appeared in the playoffs 3 times. Despite this run of success, in an interview, principal owner Stuart Sternberg was pessimistic about the Rays following their elimination from the playoffs on Tuesday. He lamented the lack of connection between winning and attendance noting, “When I came here, I was confident we could put a winning team on the field, and that would do it. We won, and we won, and we won and we won … and it didn’t do it.” He went on to claim that the Rays, “…just don’t have the $12 million to put into a hitter” and predicted that at some point MLB “is going to vaporize this team.”
Whether the Rays truly can afford more bats is a question for another post, but Sternberg is correct that Rays fans have not voted with their feet in response to the team’s recent success. The Rays finished 28th in attendance for 2011 with slightly more than 1.5 million fans turning up at the Trop. Only the Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s had fewer fans show up this year and neither had as good a current product or recent track record of success.
What explains the poor attendance for the Rays? Market size is commonly cited as a problem for the Rays, but their market is similar in size to the St. Louis market and the Cardinals had no trouble packing more than 3 million fans into Busch Stadium this year. Below I plot 2011 attendance against the natural log of Metropolitan Statistical Area population (2010 census estimates) and provide a fitted regression line. There is a clear positive relationship between market size and 2011 attendance, but Tampa Bay does not fit the general pattern well.
Turning to the connection between winning and attendance, I plot 2010 regular season wins against 2011 attendance. Again, we see a positive relationship and again we see the Rays not fitting the model well, falling 1.5 million fans below what the simple regression would predict based on their 2010 win total.
Moving beyond the 2011 season, I compiled data on attendance, wins, and market size for the 2001-2011 seasons. I regressed regular season attendance on the previous year’s attendance, wins in the previous regular season, an indicator variable for whether a team made the previous postseason, and market size (average of 2000 and 2010 populations). All of these factors were positively related to attendance. A playoff berth is associated with an average attendance increase of approximately 120,000 fans, an additional win in the previous season produces an average attendance increase of 3,350, and an extra million people in the area is associated with an increase of 11,500 in attendance.
Unfortunately for Mr. Sternberg, the Rays 2011 attendance fell 554,242 fans short of what the model would predict. Twelve other teams have drawn at least 500,000 less than the model predicts – including the Mets three times (2003, 2009, and 2010) and the Marlins twice – yet none of these other teams were coming off a playoff appearance or a 90+ win season.
At an average ticket price of $19.42 in 2011, the no-shows cost the Rays $10.76 million dollars in lost revenue – assuming the additional fans would have carpooled and refrained from purchasing concessions or team gear. More realistically, that level of attendance increase would have provided Sternberg with considerably more than the $12 million revenue increase he claims he needs to sign another hitter.
If market size and on-field success cannot explain the empty seats at Rays’ games, what can? Several factors could be at play. First, as a multi-purpose dome, Tropicana Field does not rank high on lists of great ballpark experiences. Second, many complain that the location of the stadium makes it difficult for fans to efficiently drive to and from games. Third, the fallout from the housing bubble has hit Florida particularly hard, so the economy has probably dragged down the Rays attendance more than it has some others teams, but see Detroit. Fortunately for the Rays, economies recover and nice stadiums can be built in convenient locations, but what if you build it and they don’t come? What if Tampa residents simply refuse to support the Rays? Will MLB vaporize the team? If Rays fans do not begin to show up soon, we may find out.