Looking to expand crowds Attendance: Tampa Bay Devil Rays officials admit they are disappointed by the number of fans coming out to watch the first-year team.

May 08, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Devil Rays face their biggest test this weekend when they play host to the Orioles for a three-game series that begins tonight at Tropicana Field.

But it's not what you think.

The Devil Rays don't really have anything to prove on the field. They are a first-year expansion team with relatively modest competitive expectations. The test will be in the stands, where the new franchise hopes to see attendance pick up for the first series of the year against an American League East rival.

Attendance has been respectable -- the Devil Rays rank 11th of the 30 major-league clubs -- but fan interest has not lived up to the club's preseason projections.

Owner Vince Naimoli expects to draw 3 million for the club's inaugural season, but the Devil Rays would fall well short of that goal at their pace of 31,605 per game.

"It has been a little bit disappointing," Naimoli said. "I don't know if it's because the kids aren't out of school or what, but we hope that now that we're going to play some of our divisional rivals, it will start to pick up."

The advance sale for the Orioles series indicates that there will be some decent crowds this weekend, but the Devil Rays still have some obstacles to clear before they can fully exploit the Tampa/St. Petersburg market.

It starts with Tropicana Field. The domed stadium has been shrouded in controversy since local officials funded the project -- without voter approval -- during the mid-1980s, hoping it would be the magnet that would bring Major League Baseball to the area.

Instead, several existing baseball franchises used it to leverage their own communities for stadium funding and left St. Petersburg with a huge white elephant that eventually had to be remodeled to accommodate the Devil Rays at a cost of about $85 million.

The Devil Rays paid for a significant portion of the renovation, but they still have to find a way to get some reluctant fans to come and see all the work that has been done to make the erstwhile Florida SunCoast Dome more entertaining and fan-friendly.

"There was a negative connotation to the building," said Devil Rays vice president of public relations Rick Vaughn, a former Orioles PR director. "That's something we have to get past. When we get people to come to games, they see that it is a great indoor ballpark. It's the closest thing to an outdoor facility of any of the indoor stadiums."

It is a work in progress. The major construction, which added 300,000 square feet of new floor space and spruced up the exterior, is largely complete, but new food courts, arcades and concession areas are springing up every homestand. Though the stadium is indoors, the field has been constructed to give the feel of an open-air ballpark, right down to the all-dirt base paths.

Naimoli surveys the construction proudly and expresses confidence that the more the fans see of Tropicana Field, the more they will like it.

"It's early," he said. "Right now, our average is in the 30s [thousands] and we have to average about 36,000 to reach 3 million."

Why is that number so important? The Devil Rays rank in the upper half of the major-league attendance standings, but they are well behind the pace set by the expansion Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in 1993 and they are not even in the same figurative ballpark with their expansion partner, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Diamondbacks averaged 46,355 for their first 12 home dates and have six sellouts in brand-new, retractable-roofed Bank One Ballpark. They are on pace to draw 3.8 million, which gives them a huge revenue advantage and a 50 percent larger cushion when the novelty factor begins to wear off.

Devil Rays officials admit that they have not been aggressive enough in their early season marketing, but how hard should you have to sell a product for which the locals have waited for 20 years?

Of course, it's possible that Phoenix is just a better sports market than Tampa/St. Petersburg. Fans already are used to going downtown for sporting events -- they've been going downtown for years to support the NBA Phoenix Suns -- and half of them don't have to cross Tampa Bay to get to the ballpark.

There were warning signs early on. The Devils Rays did not sell out tiny Al Lang Stadium for their inaugural exhibition game against the Florida State Seminoles and failed again to sell out the 7,000-seat downtown ballpark for their first spring game against the cross-state rival Marlins.

Naimoli said it's too early to draw any conclusions. Indoor baseball might be a tough sell when the weather is near perfect in April and May, but he expects it to be a cool alternative when temperatures rise into the 90s and the humidity pushes 100 percent during the summer.

"We've got a couple of things going for us in the summer season," he said. "That's also a tourist season, and it rains every day in the afternoon. So what do you do? Come here."

Expansion crowds

A look at how the Tampa Bay Devil Rays compare to other recent expansion teams in average attendance after 13 games of their opening seasons:

Team .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Average att.

Colorado Rockies .. .. .. .. .. .. ..58,940

Arizona Diamondbacks* .. .. .. .. ...46,355

Florida Marlins .. .. .. .. .. .. ...42,186

Tampa Bay Devil Rays .. .. .. .. .. .31,605

* -- Diamondbacks have played only 12 home games

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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