See, when I don't listen to Mike and Mike, I have nothing to write about. It's a cruel cycle. In any case, they were talking about the Tampa Bay Rays. We've known for some time their attendance was awful, especially considering the kind of team they've put together. I was told by a high school classmate of mine who lives down there now they do get a lot of support in the community. You see all sorts of Rays bumper stickers, there's buzz around the town, et cetera.* But, it seems the television ratings don't bear that out.
*I don't know what possessed me to spell it out this time. The moment just struck me, I suppose.
I'll admit that I didn't really hear all that Mike & Mike* had to say on the matter. I would assume they were talking about this story or one closely related to it. What relates to us here is the first line. "The Tampa Bay Rays rank 29th in the majors in payroll and 28th in attendance, and their local TV ratings are down more than any team's this season." Again, the attendance woes are not new, and it is widely believed that a new ballpark would be a help in this situation. Tropicana Field is, nearly unanimously, the worst place in Major League Baseball to take in a game. There are several minor league stadiums that would beat it out. The low payroll doesn't seem to be of the same sort of concern, if recent results say anything. You can get away with a low payroll if you back the right players, which Tampa has done masterfully in the past few years.
*For the grammarians out there, I was referring to the people, not the title of the show, thus the lack of italics.
The TV thing is more troubling. Mike & Mike rightly pointed out (and I have espoused this verbally if I haven't written it here) that it really questions baseball's viability in Tampa Bay if people can't be bothered to watch the games. It's bad enough you can't fill your park when you've got a real contender playing there. But if you can't even be bothered to turn on the TV if you don't want to pay the ticket prices, that's a serious lack of support. It would be awfully hard for the city of St. Petersburg and the state of Florida to put any money behind building a new stadium when people are staying away from the Rays in droves. Why would they throw that kind of money at the team when there's a very concrete lack of interest?
This is where my problem starts. Why is there a lack of interest? I don't live around Tampa, so I don't know the sort of promotion the team does to try to capture the city's entertainment dollar or anything like that. Maybe people just have better things to do around Tampa than watch a baseball game. That's what we always hear about Miami, after all.* Somebody emailed in to put the blame on ESPN and their love of big market teams. Greenie (and Golic, though to a lesser degree) totally laughed off this suggestion. And frankly, that just doesn't feel fair. Here's my take on how being ignored on ESPN can serious impact local interest. It seems there ought to be much more serious contemplation than the laugh and sarcastic quips that Mike & Mike gave it.**
*Of course, that doesn't build a very compelling case to keep the team, either.
**It probably could use a lot more thought than the emailer put into his comment, too. But, even so, it seems like a serious case of Strawman Has A Point.
I like to think I know a little bit about rooting for small market teams. Indianapolis is not a huge market. The Colts get a lot of attention now because of Peyton Manning, but that will be gone as soon as he is. The Pacers are most definitely a small market team. College sports don't work the same way, but it sure seems like Purdue is a "small market brand" compared to a lot of the Big Ten, and BCS schools as a whole. Based on that, I'm going to speak from my experience, but there's going to be some theoretical viewpoints thrown in as well. I don't think I count as a "casual sports fan." The existence of this blog probably proves that better than anything. When we start talking about markets and viewership, you're courting many more casual fans than hardcore ones.
The Pacers used to be easy to find on ESPN and national games. They had a legit star in Reggie Miller (and later Jermaine O'Neal before the injuries hit), they were divisive (generally because of Reggie Miller), and most importantly, they won. They were a title contender for about fifteen years, which is a very good run. It looked like they were going to finally break through, too, in the mid-2000's. Then the brawl happened. The talent went away. The cameras went away. Since then, it has been hard if not impossible to find the Pacers on a national game. I would go to games or watch a game (on Fox Sports Indiana) and then flip over to Sportscenter to see what moments ESPN thought were highlights, and oftentimes the game wouldn't even merit a mention. The Pacers were a franchise non grata. Even in the playoff run this past year, the viewpoint was split about 90-10 towards Bulls to Pacers outlook. And the Pacers typically got a pat on the head for "good effort, boys," and then on to what Chicago needed to do to keep driving towards the Finals. It drove me nuts.
For this particular example, the Rays (est. 1998) are not nearly so entrenched in their community as the Pacers (est. 1967). The Pacers had a pedigree of winning all through the ABA years and for a good stretch in the NBA. The Rays went a full decade before really starting to get their foot in the door. Now, if you were trying to build a brand, how is the newly interested viewer going to find about the product? Usually by coming across it in a larger publication. In this case, that larger publication is ESPN. They are the "Worldwide Leader in Sports," which is at least somewhat fair. They are, at the least, the Nationwide Leader in Sports. For years, if you consumed your sports primarily through ESPN, you could be forgiven if you forgot the Pacers or Rays existed. If you are digging and watching the local broadcasts, chances are you are already a fan. If you want to get new people interested, you are going to have to catch them on the larger scale first. Capture their attention on ESPN and get them curious, and then they'll find the local broadcast. While I would love that to mean the Rays, Pirates, Brewers, Reds, and teams of that ilk on Sunday Night Baseball on a consistent basis, the more realistic view is some expanded time on Baseball Tonight or Sportscenter.
Without that attention, there are no new viewers. It is also hard to keep your attention or be convinced that you should care without sustained focus from the national media. Otherwise, you might as well be following your local college or minor league team.* I can tell you first hand how frustrating that is, and I don't think it's a stretch to think that if somebody who lives and breathes (but unfortunately does not get paid for) sports gets fed up with it, the average sports fan isn't going to invest any time into it. And why would they?
*Now, again, I'm not the average sports fan, because I follow the Indy Indians pretty closely, as well as the Danville Dans. And my alma mater is a Division III school, so, yeah, that doesn't really come up in national media. And Wabash gets more mention than your average D3 school thanks to the Monon Bell Game.
I understand ESPN is a business, and as a business, their responsibility is not to develop brands and promote teams for the health of leagues. Their responsibility is to the stockholders and their bottom line, which says make as much money as you can. That means bringing in the big market teams that already have huge established fan bases and easy, already known story lines and familiar faces. That brings in more viewers, which means you can charge more for your advertising, which is where you make your money in TV. That's the simple, easy way to do it. Why waste time, effort, and (most importantly) money trying to get the nation to care about the Rays? ESPN doesn't serve Tampa Bay, it serves the nation. So, I understand where ESPN is coming from. And as primarily a New York fan, Greenie of course doesn't have to worry about his teams getting shafted on ESPN. There are a lot of eyes in New York. But to laugh off that ESPN's broadcasting choices have nothing to do with local viewership is absurd and quite possibly dangerous to the health of sports in general in the long run.
I was going to write about Jim Thome and his run to 600 home runs, but I had to get this off my chest first. Next time, Thome. I promise.