Are the Tampa Bay Rays Bad for Baseball's Bottom Line?

Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay Rays

Fans of the Tampa Bay Rays can catch this afternoon's game against the Texas Rangers for the bargain-basement price of $77, according to FanSnap, a search engine which analyzes the secondary market for tickets. Given that today's game opens Major League Baseball's postseason, the ticket price seems a little low. But the Rays have had trouble attracting fans for years now, even though the team finished first in the American League East and made a trip to the World Series in 2008.

Tickets for home games of the Cincinnati Reds, who square off today against the Philadelphia Phillies, are fetching $276 on average, the highest of any team. Tonight's game in Philadelphia is registering a $183 average price. Tickets to see the New York Yankees, who battled the Rays all season for the top spot in the American League East, play the Minnesota Twins in the Bronx are priced at $176. Tickets for tonight's contest in San Francisco featuring the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves are being sold for $220, FanSnap says.

The lackadaisical fan support from the Rays has been particularly noteworthy at a time when baseball attendance overall has slipped because of the sluggish economy. As the Orlando Sentinel recently noted, a recent Rays home game attracted the fourth smallest crowd in franchise history, which clearly bothered sluggers David Price and Evan Longoria, who called the attendance "embarrassing" and "disheartening."

If the Rays are victorious in the playoffs, the odds are good that they will face the Phillies, who defeated them in the 2008 World Series. That's good news for Phillies fans, some of whom attended games in Tampa during their earlier meeting in Florida because it was cheaper than seeing them in Philadelphia, even including air fare and hotel rooms. Executives from News Corp. (NWS), parent of Fox Sports, which broadcasts the World Series, may not want such a match-up. The last time the Rays were in the Series, ratings for the 'fall classic' fell 17% from the previous year.

Some critics blame the poor attendance on the stadium, but the story is likely more complex. "Team officials have talked about the need for a new stadium to attract fans," The New York Times says. "The trouble may not be the stadium, but that the Rays are a relatively new team (they began play in 1998) in a city hit hard by the recession that has many alternatives to attending a game."

The Rays probably will eventually get their way. Plenty of other cites such as Las Vegas are eager to attract a Major League Baseball team because of the prestige it brings. When faced with the prospect of losing a franchise, local officials almost always give them what they want.