In Response to Steve Berthiaume

When I woke up this morning and checked my Twitter feed, I was snowed under with 140-character responses to this piece Steve Berthiaume wrote for the Sweet Spot blog last night. I have promised over-and-over that this space will be reserved for baseball, not business, but I feel compelled to at least respond to Steve. In short, I actually agree with a lot of Steve’s argument but disagree with his ultimate conclusion.

In my opinion, Steve’s piece is the most well-reasoned argument in favor of relocation that I have read to date. I was actually a little disappointed that it was so even handed. I much prefer dismissing relocation talk as the uneducated drivel printed by that lunatic at YES/Forbes. But Steve’s research deserves fair consideration despite our collective knee-jerk reaction.

First, I think it is time for everyone that loves this team to take a step back and at least admit that something is amiss here. Attendance is declining. Television viewership is declining. There are no two ways around it. We who believe that this is a baseball town cannot be taken seriously if we don’t acknowledge that there are real problems.

Moreover, I also agree with Steve’s argument that a new ballpark, even in Tampa, might not be the panacea some folks have implied it would be. The Trop is a huge impediment to the Rays’ success. But it isn’t the only impediment and, it isn’t even the primary impediment.

But, I think Steve’s argument against the market is built on some fundamental misunderstandings about our town.

The Bucs and Lightning cannot be used as measures of the Rays future attendance success because neither franchise is similarly situated to the Rays. The Glazers’ historically contentious relationship with the taxpaying fans of Tampa finally caught up with them in 2010 and, fans chose to punish ownership’s repeated money grabs despite a surprisingly good on-field product. (I know this personally because I chose not to renew our season tickets — thereby waiving the interest free loan I gave the Glazers in the form of a seat deposit — because I was sick of being bilked just to root for my team). Likewise, the Lightning attendance has suffered because they play hockey, in Tampa. That is a tough sell. And it is a tougher sell when considering the mismanagement of Oren Koules and his gang of misfits. The new ownership group and recent on-ice success should remedy that. But, those issues distinguish each team from the Rays.

Steve’s argument in favor of moving is also based on the unsupported conclusions that the market is too old and transient and there is a lack of potential corporate sponsorship without a lot of supporting evidence. The Bucs (and even the Lightning) have sold significant corporate sponsorships despite the overall economic problems in the area. The Bucs and Lightning have also had success selling tickets and merchandise to this old and transient market despite the problems described above.

If the market is old and transient (a description that, in my opinion, is based more on colloquial misinformation than reality) then the Rays need to sell to those people where they live. Old and transient fans have disposable income that they want to use on entertainment. That is a strength of the market, not a weakness. The Rays failure to reach that is internal, not external. Likewise, the Bucs and Bolts have significant corporate sponsorship. There is no evidence in Steve’s piece to suggest that those corporate sponsors would not be similarly willing to spend on baseball. Perhaps the Rays need to look at their internal sales process to determine why they are unable to create more longstanding relationships with the business community.

In the end, I think Steve’s conclusion that the Rays need to move is based on two false premises:

There is a place for the Rays to go that is better than Tampa.
Starting a fan base at year 1 is better than waiting for year 20.
Steve inadvertently concedes the first point in his piece by implying that there isn’t another Major-League ready market for the Rays to move to. I made that point last winter in a one-sided debate I had with Peter Golenbock. Basically, the Rays should stay here because their choices aren’t any better.

More importantly, I have not yet seen anyone do an analysis of the growth timeline for expansion franchises. In my experience, every new franchise is going to struggle for market share because their primary audiences (fans of a particular sport) had a favorite team when they popped onto the map. The fans every team courts are loyal. But, loyal fans are not going to just set aside longstanding allegiances because a sports league expands. Thus, for any expansion franchise to succeed, it has to grow its own loyal fan base.

We saw this in Tampa with the Bucs. The Bucs attendance scuffled for a lot of reasons. But, they became an economic force when my generation — the first generation that grew up knowing only the Bucs and therefore loving only the Bucs — joined the workforce and the ticket-buying public.

The Rays deserve that same chance. The generation of Rays fans that were planted at expansion are just 13 years old (that is being generous, you could argue that the Rays really came into existence in 2008). We need at least 10 more years before we know whether or not this market can grow baseball fans like it grew football fans. When I walk around town I see a lot of kids obsessively wearing Rays’ gear. That gives me the gut instinct that it will happen just like it happened for me and the Bucs.

Ten years may seem like a death sentence but, it isn’t. The Rays are making money, just not as much money as they want to make. So they can survive ten more seasons. More importantly, a move to a new market puts them back to year 1, meaning they’d have to wait 18 years or 20 years, instead of 10, to learn if the new market is actually better than Tampa.

In the final analysis, I agree there is a problem. A big problem. I just don’t think it is a problem that calls for an extreme reaction. The Rays need a new park. The Rays need to move to Tampa. But even if neither of those things happen (and the local governmental budgets suggest that they can’t happen…at least not in the next 4-5 years), Tampa at least needs a chance to prove that it is growing baseball fans. The lack of a better alternative means the Rays should stick it out to see what they got.

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