Tampa Bay Rays
Rays Style A Fan Base
TAMPA - Jeremy Lagos considers himself a serious Tampa Bay Rays fan - always has for the life of the team. And he'll tell you he'd like to see more than the 20 games he usually attends at Tropicana Field each season. But Lagos, like most Rays fans who assembled for a pep rally Tuesday at Lykes Gaslight Square, lives and works in Tampa. There's no point in buying season tickets, the 30-year-old said, when the workday keeps him away. After the Rayhawk haircuts and ballpark hotdogs, the mascots and the inflatable batting cage, many downtown workers who enjoyed the frivolity at Gaslight Square expressed a common frustration: The Bay - and the Pinellas County traffic beyond - is too wide a gulf to cross for many weekday home games.If the Rays, who recently clinched their first division title, have success in the postseason, however, Lagos may be willing to take off a couple of days from his job at Timpano Italian Chophouse to share in the excitement next season. "It's worth the sacrifice," he said. The Rays' front office is willing to bet that others will make the same sacrifice. Interest from Hillsborough County fans and corporate season ticket holders is critical to the long-term success of the franchise, said Mark Fernandez, the Rays' senior vice president and chief sales officer. Tuesday's rally in downtown Tampa was one way to build that fan base, Fernandez said. Although Mayor Pam Iorio sponsored a Rays party Friday night at Tampa's Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park and declared it "Tampa Bay Rays Day," the rally Tuesday was organized by the baseball team. "For us to be successful, we have to be successful regionally," Fernandez said. The playoffs, which for the Rays begin Thursday afternoon, may only bolster that success, Fernandez said. Depending on the outcome, the franchise projects a 70 percent increase in season-ticket purchases from Hillsborough residents and businesses. Season-ticket sales are the bread-and-butter of a team's long-term success, and the Rays want a larger share of those sales coming from Hillsborough. About half of all game-day ticket sales currently come from Hillsborough, but 60 percent of season-ticket holders are from Pinellas, which long has been the team's bedrock of support. The franchise built a full-time presence in Hillsborough by opening a store and office overlooking Gaslight Square and has done more business with Hillsborough companies than the team had in previous years. The challenge is luring Hillsborough fans to weekday games. Paul Guzzo of Apollo Beach says he and his family average about 15 games a year. Most of those are on weekends, however. The one-way commute from home to Tropicana Field is 40 minutes, he said. "If they played on this side of the Bay, we'd probably go to more," said Guzzo, 51. But like others at Gaslight Square, Guzzo said he'd try to make more games if the team keeps winning. The winning season already has brought Phil Brady to four games this season. That's as many as the Tampa resident and downtown worker managed to fit in during all the years the Rays have played. The drive and congested parking make it difficult to manage during the work week, but Brady admits that the Rays' success will make the weekend games more appealing. "The environment will be a bit better," he said. Winning will be key to the Rays' success at building a fan base that stretches not only to Hillsborough, but to counties across the region, said Stuart Rogel, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the economic development agency serving seven Bay area counties. It all depends on how the team leverages its on-field success. "With the right outreach ... they'll get Hillsborough fans," Rogel said. "They'll get folks from all around the region."
Reporter Adam Emerson can be reached at (813) 259-8285 or [email protected]