Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's coming to a head

Well, the issue of low attendance for Rays baseball has come to the forefront once again in Tampa Bay.

Several months ago, owner Stuart Sternberg spoke about about the need for a new stadium and the revenue it will generate, to help the franchise move out of the low rent district (so to speak) and into the gated community of the baseball world. The response from the City of St. Petersburg's response was, in a nutshell: "Pffffffft! We have a lease that you are bound to fulfill for the next 25 years."

Since Sternberg's press conference, the issue has resided on the back burner for the most part, because of the excitement of the season and the possibiloity of a second pennant in three years. Well, the attendance/stadium issue jumped to the front burner and was turned up to high today, thanks to no less than team leader and third baseman Evan Longoria.

In a feature article by FoxSportsFlorida Rays writer Dave Scheiber(Read the entire artcle here), Longoria called out the region's baseball fans. After last night's 4-0 loss to Baltimore (Last in the A.L. East) Longoria, who has missed the last four games and may miss two more because of injury, commented on the announced crowd of 12,446 (As quoted in Scheiber's article:

“We’re playing really good baseball, and it’s kind of like, ‘What else do we have to do to draw fans into this place?” he said. “It’s actually embarrassing for us.”

Uh huh. Sure thing Evan. Probably better stick to playing(Or getting back to playing), rather than cheer leading.

Scheiber writes that Longoria didn't mean his comments to be a judgement against the fans, but rather a, quote: "rallying cry to get spectators in the seats going forward." Unquote.

For as long as one can remember, many an owner of many a team in many a sport, has 'threatened' fans with the ol' come to the games or I'll move the team cry. More often than not, the reaction has been 'see ya.' Threatening, or embarrassing your actual or potential fan base never has worked, and never will work either.

Longoria continued: "We feel like we should be out there and have a packed house. And it’s tough to see and it’s actually sometimes disheartening for us." He also said in Scheiber's article: "It’s not a jab at the fans. It’s not a kick below the belt." That is so much like when someone you know tries to excuse away a negative comment they're making about you by saying "I don't mean to be rude...." or "I hate to say this but...." Yeah, right. You don't want to be rude? Hate to say something? Then shut up. David Price, who goes to the mound tonight in search of his 19th win of the season, posted to his twitter account after last night's game: “Had a chance to clinch a post-season spot tonight with about 10,000 fans in the stands…embarrassing.” Yeah, that'll bring the fans out. Atta boy David.

“They’ve wanted to watch a contender" said Longoria, who continued by expressing his and apparently his teammates' thoughts by saying they're confused as to why attendance is so low.

Well boys, let me remove the confusion, by stating what several others have said time and time again, that you guys in uniform have so obviously not heard or chosen to forget.

The stadium stinks. The concourse areas are bland, narrow and sometimes confusing. (Reminds me a lot of Olympic Stadium in Montreal.) The one game I attended with my family last year was the most negative experience I've ever had as a paying customer of a sporting event. And, who do you think responded to my email of complaint? If you said no one, you win the prize.

The stadium is in an absolutely horrid location, that seemingly takes forever to get to from anywhere. My family and I attended this past Sunday's game, and from Clearwater, it took us nearly an hour to get to the stadium on a day with little traffic.

Parking? What parking? Whomever planned this stadium back in the '80s (It opened in 1990) forgot to take parking into consideration. With a two-year old(We mistakingly left the stroller at home), we had to walk several hundred yards to a pedestrian overpass that spanned an interstate highway, then at least a couple hundred more yards to get inside the stadium. Simply brutal. The overwhelming majority of parking is scattered here and there around the stadium site on businesses that allow parking, for a price(of course). We saw shuttles going by, but never saw where to board them. (Perhaps they were for certain groups and not for others, I don't know.)

Ticket prices are too high. Despite ESPN.com last year proclaiming  Rays baseball as the most affordable in professional sports, it's still mostly out of reach for anyone who doesn't have money to burn.

Dishonest ticket representatives. For the one game we attendance last season, a Saturday aftrernoon game against Cleveland that did have around 25,000 to 30,000 in attendance, my wife went to the ticket window and asked for a pair of $10 seats in the 300 level behind home plate. She was told those were all sold out and instead, steered her into seats down the right field line, that cost $31 a piece. (Our son is still young enough not to need to buy a ticket.) When we reached our seats, I found we had an excellent view. Of the Rays bullpen. The seats were poorly angeled and I often times could not tell what was happening. Our occurances made it the most miserable time I've EVER had at a sporting event. Oh, did I mention it was clearly apparent that the $10 seats were nowhere close to being sold out?

Non-existant customer service. I tried to find an usher to complain, and see about changing our seat location. Nope. Forget about. None to be found anywhere. Go to thew customer service table? How? Like the old saying goes, you can't get there from here. At this past Sunday's game, the escalator that took us from street level to the 300 level was closed. Not just not reversed, but closed. So, everyone, including us with a two-year old, had to walk down the spiral ramp to exit the stadium. Gee, thanks for that.

Scheiber said in his article, that Longoria said "I've thought about this for a long time and I’m not trying to take a low-blow at the fans, I’m actually just trying to rally the troops and get more people in here." (Oh, so now he's a military commander?) Longoria continues: "I’m not trying to say we have bad fans or any of that. Believe me, I’ve been here since ’06 and I love the Tampa Bay community." Again, that's one of those 'I hate to say this but....' type of comments. Many people, myself include, loved how he handled the lack of hustle incident with B.J. Upton earlier this season. But, this? Simply put, I think he comes across as, well, stupid. Shut your mouth and play baseball. He didn't mean to insult the fans? Well, he did (in my opinion) just that. You insult me, you aren't likely to get any of my money anytime soon. And, incredibly, he finished with this gem: “It’s just tough to see and I feel like I was the right guy to be able to say that.” Wow. He couldn't be more wrong. Again, close your pie hole and play some ball.

The City of St. Petersburg's stance, while understandable, will hurt more than help. Find a suitable location for a new ballpark, whether inside St. Petersburg city limits or not, build it, then, if outside St. Petersburg, work out a fair and equitable settlement on the remainder of the lease. In other words, do whatever it takes to keep the team in the Tampa Bay region. Because, in my opinion, if a new stadium isn't at least one the way within the next five years, the team's departure could happen sooner, rather than later. And, again, in my opinion, unlike Seattle or Kansas City, if the Rays leave Tampa Bay, the region will not get another big league ball team. Ever.

The immediate months ahead, plus those on down the road, should be very interesting regarding the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.

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