Whether he really meant it or just shot his mouth off in a moment of frustration following his team’s ALDS ouster, Tampa Bay Ray owner Stuart Sternberg didn’t make any friends this week with comments about his franchise and its future.
“We’ve replicated last year [on the field] and our attendance numbers were down 15 percent and our ratings were down. The rubber has got to meet the road at some point here. When you go through the season, you control your own destiny, if you win out. We’re getting to the point where we don’t control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward.”
I can’t say I blame Rays fans, I’d be pretty upset if my favorite team’s owner made such an ominous statement. There’s no way around it, it sucks and there is nothing Rays fans can do about it other than to find a way create more Rays fans. You’d think putting together a team that has become made the playoffs three times in four years, including a World Series appearance, while playing an exciting brand of baseball with a roster full of young, intriguing talent would accomplish that, but it hasn’t, in fact, Ray fans seem to be dwindling in numbers according to the attendance and TV numbers. In other words, unless Obama decides to legalize human cloning, the Rays franchise is in deep trouble.
This is the point where I am supposed to bemoan the plight of the Rays fan. Much like the Marines, they are few but they are proud. They are vocal and knowledgeable as well, running some of the best team-centric baseball blogs on the internet. That’s why I feel so bad about what I am going to write next, but, well… screw the Rays fans.
Nothing personal, but when it comes to trying to resolve the plight of the Tampa Bay franchise, the fans just shouldn’t factor into it, at least not the die-hard ones. As much as they might hope and wish for it, the Rays stand no chance as long as they are trapped in Tampa. This isn’t even about the team being stuck in an ironclad lease that will force them to play in the worst stadium in baseball until 2027. If by some miracle they convince the city of Tampa to build a state-of-the-art stadium for the Rays, the city itself will always remain a problem.
The last few years has proven one thing beyond a reasonable doubt: Tampa sucks as a sports town. The popular refrain from Rays fans defending their city is that at least some portion of the poor attendance is attributable to the poor economy. If that were a valid argument, one would expect to see other similar markets suffering as well. That certainly isn’t the case in Detroit or Milwaukee where winning clubs have prompted fans the fans to turn out in droves. And the economy certainly doesn’t explain the massive drop off in TV ratings either. Unless the Tampa economy is so terrible that citizens have ceased to pay their cable bills, there is no excuse for them choosing to simply not watch the Rays. And it isn’t just baseball either, the Buccaneers similarly young and promising football team is also struggling so badly in attendance that most of their games have been blacked out locally dating back to Week 6 of the 2010 season.
To be fair, the Bucs had a long sellout streak before the 2010 season, built on the back of several years of winning and a new stadium. Even though the Bucs are still winning, the new stadium’s magic has lon since worn off. That same fate awaits the Rays should they get that new stadium that they have very little chance of getting. Already the locals have gotten over the novelty of the Rays being good. A new stadium might pique local interest for a few years, but once that temporary bump in interest fades away, so will the franchise.
As Sternberg opined, fighting the good fight to make this team competitive in a market that has little interest in the team isn’t something he can do forever and that’s a shame because he is the kind of owner most every team in any sport would kill to have. The same goes for their general manager Andrew Friedman and their manager Joe Maddon. All three of them are tremendous and they all deserve better.
While Friedman and Maddon have been more diplomatic about the Rays’ situation, always saying the right thing and playing the part of loyal soldier, neither is going to hang around forever. Already rumors are swirling that Friedman could bolt for greener pastures this off-season. Once that happens, how far behind can Maddon really be? He’s not going to wait around forever for the next GM to display the same uncanny ability to field a quality roster on a shoestring budget.
Face it, Rays fans, at some point in the next few years this team is going to take a nosedive and it could be a long time before they pull up out of it since they will have wasted their beloved manager, lost their genius GM and scared off their savior of an owner. But MLB has a chance right here and now to intervene and save this team while it is still worth saving. If that means disenfranchising a few thousand fans in the process, then so be it.
As callous as it might sound, Rays fans are the ideal fanbase to screw over. As loyal and knowledgeable as they are, they really aren’t losing much. Let’s not forget that the Rays have only existed for 13 seasons and only been relevant for the last four, so it isn’t like Bud Selig would be messing with decades of history here. Tampa fans just haven’t been with the team for that long, it might take a few years, but they’ll get over it and maybe even learn to love again with some other team.
With this unique collection of ownership, management and roster talent, the Rays have a chance to be something special both right now and for years and years to come. That is something worth preserving and, as such, Selig shouldn’t think twice about using whatever resources he has at his disposal to extricate the Rays from the the city of Tampa and into a market that can provide more sustainable support. Be that be in some other part of Florida (which seems doubtful given the similar struggles of the Marlins) or Portland or New Jersey or even Las Vegas, it is incumbent upon Bud to get the Rays to that city and do it soon before Sternberg, Friedman, Maddon or all of them lose interest in fighting the good fight.
Sorry, Rays fans, but you can’t make an omelet with breaking a few eggs.