Thursday, March 12, 2009
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Finally a winner, Rays work to fill more seats

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[March 12, 2009]  PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) -- Talk about poor timing, now that the Tampa Bay Rays are winning they have to sell tickets through the biggest recession in decades.

The Rays stunned baseball last year by winning 97 games and their first American League pennant. But they have to fill more seats at Tropicana Field to support an increased payroll as they try to maintain their hold on first place in the competitive AL East.

"It wasn't the best year to win," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said.

The team, which started play as the Devil Rays in 1998, is counting on the excitement from last season to carry over to this year. Attendance was up nearly 30 percent last year but the Rays still averaged just 22,370 during the regular season -- ahead of only Kansas City, Oakland, Florida and Pittsburgh.

"Clearly, we are being throttled somewhat by the economy," Sternberg said. "We're still going to be next-to-last in season-ticket sales. I'm pleased with the growth, but we have a ways to go yet."

Without providing specifics, Sternberg says ticket sales are up over last year. "We're right at expectations," is how he puts it.


The Rays focused offseason marketing efforts on season tickets, urging fans to make the upgrade to even a partial plan that would lock them into a specified number of games for as little as $6 per ticket. The team offered dibs on playoff and World Series tickets last fall to those who put down deposits for 2009 season packages.

Financial health for low-revenue teams such as the Rays depends on building a far larger base of full- and partial-season ticket holders than clubs in big cities. Large-market teams have far greater local broadcasting revenue to fall back on.

And there's still the problem of Tropicana Field, an 18-year-old dome near downtown St. Petersburg that some think is on the wrong side of the bay in terms of access to fans in the area.

The Rays are hoping to build an outdoor ballpark somewhere in the Tampa Bay area and have a committee of local people studying sites. But for now they're stuck with the dreary Trop. Capacity is as much as about 40,800, but tarps usually cover portions of the upper deck that aren't sold.

Sternberg acknowledges the Rays may join Florida as the only teams since 1985 not to exceed the league average in attendance the year after appearing in the World Series. The Marlins failed to do it after their pennants in 1997 and 2003. The league average last season was 32,532.

Tampa Bay did its part to boost the roster, signing slugger Pat Burrell to a $16 million, two-year deal. Personnel moves pushed the payroll up to around $60 million, a heady number for the bargain-basement Rays, who had an opening-day payroll of $24 million just two seasons ago.

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No question there's more excitement in the air this spring.

"(Rays fans) just needed something to really cheer about, and I think it will just snowball this year," said 51-year-old Jan Fanstill, who with husband Mark has season tickets at the Rays new spring training base in Port Charlotte, near where they live.

The transplanted Chicagoans adopted the Rays as their team, bought all the gear and, energized by the World Series appearance last year, are studying the schedule to plan trips up to the Trop.

"Last year, I think, did wonders for them," said 35-year-old Brian Salter, who brought his two young sons to the spring training opener. "Just the excitement of them being competitive and not seeing a loss for the home team every time. That alone just makes it more interesting to go."

Rays manager Joe Maddon says he's seen more visiting fans coming to cheer for them at other spring training parks in the Tampa Bay area, including at the New York Yankees' Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

"That really felt good," Maddon said of the reception at the Yankees' spring training home, a place typically jammed with transplanted and vacationing New Yorkers. "I like the way they're wearing our stuff and know who the players are. Before, there may have been a smattering of that sprinkled here and there. The culture has definitely changed."

[Associated Press; By MITCH STACY]

AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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