July 23, 2014

#MLB baseball in #Tampa and #Miami ... it's just not a big thing

In a new post at NBC's Hardball Talk a couple of days ago, I got into extended discussion with a strong Rays fan who acknowledge that David Price is going to get shipped somewhere, either before the July 31 trade deadline or else during the offseason. (Ben Zobrist has drawn his own lesser amount of rumor and speculation, of course.)

Price acknowledged the financial reasons behind that likely decision, but refused to even entertain the possibility of the sports sociology issue behind those finances, namely that ...

South Florida just maybe ain't prime MLB territory.

Here's an edited version of my side of the conversation, laying out the support for that in detail.

First, let's not blame the problem on Tampa's stadium, its domed dinosaur.

It’s not just the stadium. It’s not just that area. Greater Tampa-St. Pete is at least as big as greater St. Louis, so it’s not a population issue. And, it's not the stadium's location. Yes, it has a bit of traffic accessibility issues, but, unlike Atlanta, it doesn't combine that with being in a somewhat lesser economic area, at least to my knowledge.

It’s baseball in Florida. Does fine in spring; doesn’t draw fans in summer. Doesn’t draw a lot of local franchise loyalty. That’s probably due in part to a mix of all the spring training locations of other teams, rookie leagues down there after that, and the number of retirees with baseball loyalties, if any, to other teams. And, to extend this to all of south Florida, while Tampa-St. Pete is a mid-market area, not a true small market like Kansas City or Pittsburgh, Miami is a large market ... almost the same size as D.C./Northern Virginia, and 85 percent the size of Dallas-Fort Worth.

And, from what I know about their local cable deals, I don't think either franchise draws that great on TV, either.

Second, this is not about sports, it's about Major League Baseball. After my respondent thought he was refuting me by mentioning the fandom of the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL, I replied.

Had I wanted to talk about sports enthusiasm, I said I could have mentioned both areas NFL teams, the Miami Heat in the NBA, or, as he did, the Lightning.

This is about baseball. South Florida has shown that, for whatever reasons, it’s not an MLB hotbed. Period.

Marlins never had great attendance under Huizinga, which is why he dismantled the team after each of their two WS titles.

To be fair, the Marlins weren’t horrible in attendance in 1997, their first World Series year: 2,364,387 (5th of 14).

But, they were in 2003: 1,303,215 (15th of 16).

That said, you can’t totally blame the post-1997 player sell-off for attendance.

In 1996, a “respectable” 80-82 team’s attendance: 1,746,767 (10th of 14). Attendance went back there in 1998. Yes, that team stunk, but out of the big player sell-off, while Jeff Conine and Moises Alou were traded at the end of 1997, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla, and Gary Sheffield weren't shipped the 97/98 offseason. That trio got moved during the 1998 season, and at least one-quarter of the way into the season.

So, although you may not like it … there’s a lot of attendance figures that point up problems with baseball in South Florida.

In Miami, I'm only giving limited credence to the idea of blaming Jeff Loria as Marlins owner for attendance woes there.

The attendence before, and immediately after, the first WS title, is all on Huizinga. He didn’t sell the team, and to John Henry, current Boston owner, until after 1998. Loria didn’t buy them until the post-2001 offseason. And, the team won a title in 2003, and nobody came out … and Loria’s antics in Florida hadn’t been that long yet, or that bad.

I'm curious as to why the Rays fans I'm running into at NBC, at least, simply refuse to discuss this issue of general baseball support.

So, any other Rays fans … you want to honestly, openly discuss the issue of whether south Florida might just not be a baseball-friendly area?

Finally, to this person and other Rays fans, or Marlins fans, lest you think I’m picking on Tampa in particular, or South Florida?

As a diehard Cards fan, former St. Louis resident, relatives there, etc.?

St. Louis is a great baseball town, as outsiders know, too. It’s a very good hockey town. It’s a decent, at least, football town.

But … it’s not a basketball town. Never really has been. The Hawks only stayed a decade after moving from Milwaukee to go on to Atlanta. The Spirits never drew well in ABA days.

Cities, or regions, are like that … good sports teams in some sports, not in others.

Note that greater LA is more than a decade of being NFL-free, but not a lot of people there seem crushed by that.

So, again … seems like South Florida just ain’t baseball territory. I’m sorry for you as a strong Rays fan that you don’t have more compadres, but … that’s the facts of life.

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