Yesterday was throwback day for Tampa Bay sports fans. I put on my orange Bucs shirt to listen to Gene Deckeroff call the Steelers’ rout of the home team, just like when I was a kid. The blackout got me thinking about the most-discussed Rays topic: attendance.
The Bucs seem like a natural comparator for the Rays. Longtime losers, turn the franchise around, and suddenly start selling tickets. But, listening to Deckeroff yesterday reminded me of three key differences between the franchises:
- The Bucs had been around a lot longer before they turned into a perennial contender;
- The Bucs turnaround was more gradual; and
- The Bucs turnaround didn’t come amidst the total collapse of the local economy.
I have made the third point several times so I will spare you a repeat. But the other two points are vital to an understanding of the fans dressed as blue seats. It is not fair to rely upon the community’s quick adoption of the Bucs in 1996 as proof that this is a football town and not a baseball town. The Bucs had played 20 mostly-forgettable seasons by 1996. There was a generation of fans that, like me, had grown up rooting for the Bucs and some other team just waiting for the Bucs to make it right. When they did, the secondary allegiances died a fast death. The Rays haven’t been around long enough for a generation of fans to have known only Rays baseball. But that time is near.
The first point — the speed of the turnaround — is the main difference. The Bucs went for a doormat, to a .500 team, to a wild card team, to a division champ, to a playoff disappointment. To a franchise that made repeat playoff disappointments right. The Rays? They went from the worst franchise ever, to AL pennant winners, to a disappointment in just three years.
Think about that. The Bucs gradual turnaround didn’t skew Buc fans’ expectations. Every year seemed better than the last because the team advanced a little further. The Rays on the other hand, turned it all the way around in 2008. The fans came streaming in the turnstiles in 2009 expecting the team to finish the journey. When they didn’t, the fans became disenchanted because they had already forgotten 2007. In 2008, Rays fans would have been incredibly happy about a third place finish in the East. But, because 2008 was what 2008 was, the 2009 finish, incredibly, seemed like a disappointment.
So what does that have to do with three games against Seattle in September 2010? Everything. The Rays torched the league throughout the first month of the season. Right then, they killed their ability to sell tickets for this final week of home games. Why? Because this isn’t 2008 and the fans aren’t just excited about the possibility of going to the playoffs. Somewhere along the lines, Rays fans started expecting this team to go to the playoffs. Combine that with a dimunition in disposable income and what do you have? A reluctance to spend money being saved for playoff tickets on late season games against non-AL East opponents.