Before the start of the season, I spoke with Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Brian Auld about how the team hoped to attract fans to the ballpark for an article in our Major League Preview issue. With the Rays set to play before packed houses in the American League Championship Series, I thought it would be interesting to check in again with Auld and get his take on how the season went off the field.
Evaluating how the Rays fared off the field is a more complex process than the simple wins and losses that reveal the team’s best season on the diamond in their 10-year history.
Sure, the Rays overall attendance grew by 400,000 to 1,780,791—a roughly 40 percent increase on last year’s total. However Tampa still ranked just 26th in the majors in overall attendance despite besting the Red Sox and Yankees for the AL East crown.
So, as Tampa Bay prepares to host the Boston in the American League Championship Series, would it be fair to classify the season as a success?
"That’s a complex question," Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Brian Auld said. "If before the season you told me that we would win the AL East, I would’ve asked for a bigger number than we got this year. So in that respect, it’s mildly disappointing. But no one expected attendance to go up 400,000. Season tickets really drive that overall number. Going into next year, this offseason will be really telling for us. If we can increase that season-ticket base over the season, we think (our attendance) will make a huge jump."
The Rays’ late-season push for first place didn’t always translate at the gate. The team averaged just 16,985 fans for a midweek three-game series against the Angels in mid-August and average crowds of 21,469 saw the Rays take 5 of 6 from the Blue Jays and Orioles to close out the month.
Tampa Bay didn’t fare much better in midweek games once school went into session in September. They sold out just one of a critical Monday-to-Wednesday set against Boston, drawing just under 30,000 for the series opener before reaching the capacity of 36,048 on Wednesday. The next night’s series opener against the Twins drew just 17,296.
"We struggled with middle of the week games with school back in session in the fall even though they were crucial pennant race games, and we think the way to build that back up is to build up the season-ticket base," Auld said.
The Rays entered the season believing that they were still a year or two away from reaching their goals on the field and off. Their postseason drive proved to be an unexpected boost at the gate—Auld said the team sold out more games (8) than their previous 10 seasons combined. They’ll continue a family first model, which included eight Saturday night concerts that each drew more than 30,000 and a variety of attractions around the concourse, while expanding the suddenly growing base of dedicated Rays fans.
"Part of the fan population will go up with wins and down with losses and there is not much we can do about that on business side. But what we can do is make sure people have a good time. We have seen a lot of trial customers turn into long-term Rays fans," said Auld, adding that the team’s core of young players locked into long-term deals will become their promotional centerpiece.
"None of these players are about to become free agents and they are just starting to become household names. They are exciting and real good guys. As we take guys like (Carl) Crawford, (Rocco) Baldelli and (Evan) Longoria, we have an opportunity to take our Rays brand and include these guys in it. We think that will be a real powerful leverage and this postseason will be an opportunity to build our season-ticket base."
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