ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - They built it, but they didn't come. The Rays ballpark has been the Tropicana Field of Nightmares as the team sits in second-to-last place in attendance so far this season, a trend that's continued for years.
Now the top man in Major League Baseball on Thursday appeared to be inviting himself and his staff to the negotiating table in Tampa Bay regarding the future of the Rays. Commissioner Bud Selig said he is frustrated about the progress of stadium talks, and might send an MLB representative to "find out exactly what the hell is going on."
It's not the first time Selig has intervened in the progress of stadium negotiations in Florida. Six years ago, MLB helped negotiate a ballpark deal in South Florida with the intent on improving stagnant attendance and boost enthusiasm for the Miami Marlins.
It hasn't worked.
Although Miami's attendance jumped from 28th in 2011 to 18th in 2012, the year the new ballpark opened, the team has since regressed to worst in the majors this season. Tampa Bay is a notch ahead in attendance at 29th in 2013.
"Pro sports is a tough market right now," said Michael Mondello, Sports Business professor at USF. "The fans, I think a lot of them, are pushing back right now for a variety of reasons."
Unlike Miami's team, the Rays have consistently posted winning records in recent years, with a Cy Young Award winner and several All-Stars. But it has done little to draw fans to the much lamented Tropicana Field. At times during the season, it appeared gimmicks like Joe Maddon "gnome" giveaways drew more fans than the players on the field.
Until recently, St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster had been adamantly opposed to allowing the Rays to look elsewhere to build a new stadium. Foster was surprised by Selig's comments as recent talks with the team were progressing well, he said.
Hillsborough County officials seemed equally taken aback as they, too, have been working out possible scenarios that could bring the Rays across the Bay.
"It's not going to be an absolute slam dunk if the Rays relocate to Hillsborough County and that their attendance is going to be sold out," said Mondello. "It's difficult to tell."
But if Miami's history is any lesson, the Rays might find that no matter where a stadium is built, getting fans into the seats will always be a challenge.
"I do think they would see a spike in attendance, but it might be short lived," said Mondello, who said it's not unsual for initial stadium openings to draw crowds. But as the Marlins have already discovered, keeping them coming back is the challenge.
Mondello said with economic factors, high definition televisions, commuting hassles, and general apathy toward the Trop, fans in Tampa Bay just aren't giving the Rays much in the way of live fan support. But TV ratings suggest the Rays do have a strong following, as the games are among the highest rated in all of baseball.
That may not be enough for the commissioner.
Selig has the option of yanking the franchise away from Tampa Bay if it's deemed the team can't properly support itself.
"Maybe baseball doesn't survive in the state of Florida," said Mondello. "We haven't had a lot of success supporting it."