Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Playing the stadium game

Long and loud debates over sports stadiums have been raging in Florida of late. In Sarasota, where I work at the daily newspaper (until Sept. 20), the debate is over whether to go all the way on a new stadium for Boston Red Sox spring training since the Cincinnati Reds are leaving the current aged facility for Arizona.

In the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, the debate is over whether the Tampa Bay Rays need a new stadium and whether and how much the taxpayers should pay for it. The Rays play in “the Trop (aka Tropicana Field),” a domed stadium that was built to attract a major league team to the area (they almost nabbed the White Sox, and there was talk about the Giants), but one of the owners of the team caused a ruckus when he was quoted in The New York Times as saying that eventually the team wanted a new stadium, and sooner rather than later.

Let’s not even get into the Marlins-Miami battle. The team has been threatening to go elsewhere since nearly day one if it didn’t get a publicly funded facility. The Marlins play in Dolphin Stadium, a facility more suited to football, and it shows. Also, there are a lot of empty seats.

Before we get into anything, I want to tell a story from my childhood.

In the late 1960s, before the New York Mets got really good, the male relatives I knew would get very excited when the Dodgers or Giants came to town to play the Mets. Having been born in 1960, I was of course clueless as to why they cared, but noticed that Shea Stadium seemed to always be packed when those two teams came to town. I asked my father, and he told me that at one time the Dodgers and Giants had played in New York. This was news to me, simply because it was before my time. I just knew and loved the Mets. I had no team loyalty to the Dodgers and Giants, as did my relatives and father. Of course, as time went on they rooted for the Mets, and were happy — as I was — when the Mets won the World Series in 1969.

The thing is, team loyalties are not shifted that easily. I still root for the Mets and consider the Mets my team, not the Rays. When the Mets play the Marlins in Miami, there are often as many Mets fans in the stadium as Marlins fans. When the Rays play the Yankees or the Red Sox, the Trop is often full of fans of those teams. And recently, when the Rays started winning games, they started drawing larger crowds who supported the Rays. It makes you wonder: maybe the key to good attendance and fan support is not a super-duper-new (and publicly funded) stadium, but a team that plays good, exciting baseball and wins most of its home games. What a concept.

It may take several years, more than owners of teams like the Rays and Marlins are willing to wait, for the residents of an area to feel that they are fans of the local team. And in a situation like Florida’s, where so many people are from somewhere else in the country and bring their loyalties when they move to the state, owners may have to face the reality that those who do buy tickets are doing so to see the teams that have their first loyalty and not the home team. Of course, the children born after their parents’ arrival in Florida may develop loyalty toward the local team (barring indoctrination by parents or relatives) but it would still be many years before they have the wherewithal to buy tickets on their own. By that time, the team may be long gone.

Teams have threatened to leave. Even the Rays have made some noise about going elsewhere if they don’t get what they want. And, of course, as we saw with the Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Brewers and teams in other sports, a team will move if it can’t get a good deal from local elected officials, and if taxpayers insist that tax money should go to roads, schools, libraries, etc., and not a sports palace.

In Florida, team owners consider everyone living in the region a fan of the local team, and regularly lament the empty seats as a sign of “fan apathy,” and warn people living in the region that the team may leave if there is not more “fan support.” While there are those who are vocal supporters of the “keep the team at all costs” plan, others are adamant and vocal that if the area cannot support a team, the free market must prevail. With so much to do in Florida (aside from getting ready for hurricanes 1,500 miles away), sports often takes a back seat to other activities. And with the economic downturn and the high price of good seats, sometimes the best seat in the house is at home, in front of a TV set.

Instead of exploring why people don’t go to the games, the owners of the Marlins and Rays should look at why they do go. To see baseball, to see the teams to which they are still loyal and for entertainment. If the good seats cost less, and if people did not feel like the teams were trying to get something for nothing (perish the thought!), maybe they’d feel better about coming out to the stadium to watch the game.

Part of the frustration the public may have about these stadiums could be just that a group of rich people believes it is entitled to the time and money of those who have less. It just strikes a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area, including me, that it’s the height of arrogance to have a stadium — and one that is not that old — but then run it down, complain about it and make it sound like it’s dilapidated and falling apart, and then demand a new one.

That’s not how sports teams win friends, or fans.

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September 10, 2008 - Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I couldn’t agree more, these kind of actions get people to resent you

    Comment by Jack | September 10, 2008 | Reply


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