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ESPN blasts empty stands at Tampa Bay Rays playoff games

The team, which plans to build a $1.3 billion stadium in St. Petersburg, drew fewer than 21,000 fans for each of its two playoff games, setting a more-than 100-year low.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 10:00 a.m. October 4, 2023
  • | Updated 6:20 p.m. October 4, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announce the deal for a new $1.3 billion ballpark in the city at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announce the deal for a new $1.3 billion ballpark in the city at Tropicana Field.
Photo by Mark Wemple
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Just 14 days after the Tampa Bay Rays announced the team would invest more than $700 million on a new stadium in St. Petersburg, fewer than 20,000 people showed up Tuesday to watch the first game of its run to the World Series.

Attendance at Wednesday’s game was not much better.

The total attendance for Game 1 of the Wild Card series against the Texas Rangers Oct. 3 was 19,704, the lowest for a playoff game in more than 100 years. On Oct. 4, it was 20,198.

According to research from the sports website The Athletic, the previous low was in 1919 when 13,923 attended a World Series game in Cincinnati where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson went 2 for 4 and batted in two runs. In that case, the website reports, there was a miscommunication about tickets sales that left a long line of fans outside the stadium clamoring to get in.

There were no reports of clamoring coming from Tropicana Field Tuesday.

Fan support has long been an issue for the Rays with the team long near the bottom in attendance despite great success on the field. According to Major League Baseball, it drew 1.4 million fans in 2023, placing it 27 out of 30 teams.

But for even the most cynical observer, the two games were jarring. On television, as a team that won 99 games and has legitimate World Series aspirations played in its home ballpark, you could see thousands and thousands of empty seats whenever the camera panned. In one shot, two men sat alone among several hundred empty seats.

The lack of fan support was not lost on the ESPN broadcasters calling Wednesday’s game. At one point, Sean McDonough called the audience a “group” because “I’m not sure you can call it a crowd.

The subject of the poor attendance came up again a couple of innings later. McDonough said the broadcast crew had asked Ray’s manager Kevin Cash about the crowd size Tuesday and if it disappointed him and players. Cash’s reply, McDonough said, was that “There'll be a time I’ll talk about that.”

The crew then asked why a new stadium is being built when “nobody’s come here for all these years” even with real good teams on the field. Cash, McDonough said, again replied, “there'll be a time I'll talk about that. Today is not the day.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” McDonough said of the lack of fan support.

A team spokesperson asked Wednesday about the attendance said “we’re not commenting.”

While some may argue that the low attendance was caused by the game being played on a Tuesday afternoon at 3:07 p.m., in Minnesota, where the Twins’ game began at 3:38 p.m. central time, the announced attendance was 38,450.

The most disappointed by Tuesday’s attendance — or lack thereof — are likely team officials who just two week ago raved about how people were finally showing up at the ballpark this season.

“We feel the momentum,” Rays president Matt Silverman said at a Sept. 19 press conference after the team announced the new stadium deal.

“We're up 25% in attendance, 30% in attendance, … and now Rays fans in the entire community can breathe a sigh of relief and know that this team is going to be here. And all that bottled up enthusiasm that people were sort of holding back can now come out. We can celebrate. And we can see the growth and the potential of this franchise.”

The Rays lost Tuesday’s game 4-0 and Wednesday’s 7-1, bringing the season to an end.

The team plans to build a domed, 30,000-seat stadium near the current site of Tropicana Field that is expected to open in 2028. It will be part of a $6 billion multi-use development on the 86-acre site of the Historic Gas Plant District. The $1.3 billion stadium will be built with about $600 million in funds from the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County and at least $700 million from the team.

This article has been updated.



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the deputy managing editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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