Marlins, Rays Spruce Up Sagging Markets

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg was on a Tampa-area radio show when the host, fishing for a positive take on the team's future, posed a hypothetical to the former Wall Street investor: If the team's redevelopment project were a marathon, what mile would they currently be at?

With a farm system loaded with prospects on the verge of reaching the big leagues and a new state-of-the-art ballpark looking ever more like a reality, Sternberg would hardly have been scoffed at if he had optimistically predicted the Rays heading down the stretch run.

"We're not even lacing up our shoes," he replied.

Sternberg's assessment was not limited to the on-field performance of a team that has yet to post a winning record in its 10-year history. He is also trying to build a winner off the field and bring to life a franchise that has finished last in American League attendance in seven of the past eight seasons, and calls a domed ballpark considered among baseball's worst its home.

Yet Sternberg's step-by-step approach is beginning to pay off, and he may yet turn around an organization that wasn't even off the couch—much less winning the race—when he bought out Rays founding owner Vince Naimoli in October 2005.

Revitalizing an organization in a city with no major league baseball history is no easy task. And the Rays, like many teams, are going back to basics by invoking a fan-first, family-friendly business model—not unlike those used by minor league baseball teams that have helped launch its sport into a financial golden era.

While promotions are as much a part of baseball history as Cracker Jacks and trading cards, teams like the Rays and Marlins are trying to overcome geographical and structural challenges by making their ballparks into destination attractions. Arriving to the park just before the first pitch and leaving after the seventh inning doesn't fit into their business model. Instead they invite fans to come early for a parking lot happy hour or concourse level mini-carnival and stay late for fireworks and a concert.

The action on the field is hardly considered secondary, but the Marlins and Rays are pulling out the stops to make sure their fans leave the ballpark smiling—and come back again.

"You see more teams running themselves like a business," Rays senior vice president of business operations Brian Auld said. "Fan experience wasn't a term you heard much a few years ago, and now everyone talks about it. We have a vice president of fan experience."

If You Build It . . .

The Rays have few on-field accomplishments to boast of in the two seasons under new management. Their 127-197 record is the worst two-year mark in baseball—as evidenced by their position atop the 2007 and 2008 drafts—and they've finished with the sport's worst record two other times, in 2001 and 2002.

Yet peek behind the curtain and the future appears bright beneath the dome of Tropicana Field. Despite their on-field misery, the Rays attracted nearly 400,000 more fans in 2007 than they did in 2005. A ballpark once known to its fans for dirty bathrooms and dark, empty hallways has been spruced up and now features roughly 20 attractions around the concourse level designed to entertain fans no matter the score on the field.

Among the park's highlights is the Rays Touch Tank, a 35-foot, 10,000-gallon tank containing 22 cow-nosed devil rays located just beyond the right-center field wall. Fans can enter the area at 10-minute intervals to touch and feed the rays. And if a player happens to splash a homer into the tank, the team will donate $5,000 to charity—including $2,500 to the Florida Aquarium, which maintains the display and cares for the rays.

Along the concourse fans can find a variety of attractions that generally open well before game time, including: a kids carnival, designed for kids ages 5 to 8, featuring a variety of games with every child winning a prize (that bears the Rays brand); Baseball and Brushes Alcove, an area where kids can paint and design pennants and signs to display during the game; Feel The Game booth, where kids can put on game-used Rays jerseys and equipment, swing actual players' bats and feel what it's like to stand on the field turf; and The Ted Williams Museum, which according to Auld, features "the best collection of baseball memorabilia this side of Cooperstown."

"Every one of those alcoves used to be the underside of bleachers," Auld said. "It's a totally different place than it used to be. It's not rocket science. You ask people and they tell you what they like and we try and change our day-to-day operations."

And with a long line of prospects creating an unusual sense of optimism in St. Pete, the Rays feel like the time may be coming to run the credits on the team's undistinguished history.

"The last couple of years have been about priming ourselves for now. For being ready when we are ready to take off," Auld said. "We knew we had a lot to build up on the business side and baseball side. We think things are beginning to build up now."

Fishing For Fans

The Marlins too have sought creative ways to overcome often overbearing weather, a football-first stadium, and an inability to retain their most valuable players and reach out to what the team believes is a strong fan base.

"We know Marlins fans are out there," said vice president of marketing Sean Flynn, citing solid radio and television ratings.

A proposed new climate-controlled ballpark, with a retractable roof, could be the long-term solution to the team's woes at the gate—Florida ranked 30th in attendance last year and 26th in 2004, the year after its World Series championship season. Yet in the meantime, the Marlins realize that creating a place-to-be environment is their best hope at remaining competitive in a South Florida market rich with options.

So the Marlins began focusing their attention in 2006 on weekend games, particularly making each Saturday night home contest feel like a special event. Fans are greeted at the parking lot with a giveaway item. Awaiting fans outside Gate H is The Strike Zone, an outdoor party area that on Saturdays features a variety of entertainment, ranging from celebrity autograph sessions to marching bands, while creating a tailgating venue to enjoy a pregame beverage. The giveaways on those nights are participatory (think Thundersticks or cowbells) and the team expands its game production to include a DJ and a celebrity host.

Each Saturday night game concludes with a fireworks show and a concert, with acts scheduled for this season including Bret Michaels and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

The result: a 60 percent increase in Saturday night attendance last season.

The Marlins also try to bring the party inside the stadium. They were baseball's first club to debut a dance team, known as the Mermaids, and this season will debut the Manatees—an overweight, all-male cheering squad.

"We market ourselves as entertainment with baseball as its core product," Flynn said. "You won't find us building campaigns around certain players or a core player. They will be part of the overall campaign, a piece of the puzzle. We have to provide entertainment, add other elements and be aggressive in bringing other elements to the table that make people think they are in the place to be in South Florida."