Late last night, while I was feeding my son, reader Dan B posted a comment on the Point-Counterpoint Brendan and I did in April about the Trop. Dan’s argument essentially concluded that the Rays popularity on television has hurt their in-park attendance numbers.
At first blush, there is at least some logical appeal to Dan’s argument. Why would fans pay for a product that the Rays are giving away for free (well, for cable subscriptions)? The NFL certainly believes local television availability negatively affects attendance. So, could the Rays solve their attendance problems with a NFL-style blackout rule?
My gut says no.
The NFL and MLB are apples and oranges. The NFL blackout rule is supported by the reality that a huge percentage of NFL fans don’t actually like football. The NFL has grown exponentially thanks to gambling and fantasy football. And, you cannot track your bets or fantasy teams from inside NFL stadiums (although, I did recently read that the NFL is now giving real time fantasy updates in stadium this year. That is just crazy. I cannot believe we are indulging that.)
More importantly, NFL teams have just 8 home dates to generate all their ticket revenue and none of the teams have an incentive to increase TV viewership because none of the teams have their own TV deals.
In baseball, however, television revenue is as important — and maybe more important — than ticket revenue. They are two legs on the same revenue stool. Stu admitted as much when a reporter asked him several years ago if he really thought that three games per year in Orlando would convince people to drive two hours for a ball game. He said something like “I just want them to watch on television.” So, shutting down an income source in the hopes that it will repair an alternative income source, amounts to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Finances aside, I think that a lot of smart people agree that the NFL blackout rule is more harmful than helpful. Case in point: Last year we got 8 Buc blackouts (10 if you are one of those people that watches preseason games). Those blackouts didn’t motivate fans to sell out Raymond James Stadium on Sunday to see a young team that nearly made the playoffs. Instead, the Bucs home opener was blacked out again.
Who wasn’t frustrated by that? I certainly was. The kind of customer-base that props up a major sports franchise long term has to be cultivated. Teams may see spikes in popularity during good times or surrounds good players. But, to survive, teams need the fans that have an affinity for the brand, not for the current roster. Think of the Cubs. The book Scorecasting concluded that the Cubs’ ownership has no incentive to win games because they know their fans are so loyal that they will sell out the park no matter what kind of product is on the field.
That kind of loyalty doesn’t just crop up overnight. It has to be cultivated from childhood. I love the Bucs because, when I was a kid, they were the only game in town. We followed them because they were our team and, as far as we knew, they always were our team. We weren’t loyal to someone else (I was a Yankees fan when the Rays popped onto the map) first before switching allegiances. In fact, in a weird way, the Bucs blackout Sunday was a slightly positive thing because I love listening to Gene Deckeroff. it reminds me of being a kid, working outside with my dad on Sundays and listening to the games (that were always blacked out).
But my experience is unique with sports on the radio. For the Rays to build a brand identity that has life in this area, they need to be on television every night and they need to have kids watching. Those kids will grow up knowing nothing but Rays and will inevitably be loyal customers. I know my daughters, who are currently 3 and 1, will be fans. They both lost their mind last night when Longo hit that ball all the way to Philly. They wouldn’t have had that opportunity without Dewayne, Brian, Todd, and Sun Sports.