John Donovan
Monday November 3rd, 2008

The Rays won't know for a few more weeks, maybe even several months, what their 2008 season has meant to the long-term health of the franchise. Success, after all, is a whole new experience for the franchise and for its still-small fan base. There's no telling what will come of suddenly having a winning team in a place so used to losing.

If these next few weeks and months go as the Rays would like them to, though, then maybe baseball will take hold in the Tampa area and the Rays can be a competitive franchise for years to come. They won't be able to promise 97 wins and a trip to the World Series every year. Even the Yankees can't do that. But becoming a perennial player, finally? Well, we're about to find that out. Or at least begin to find out.

"I still believe Major League Baseball should make it in any market," Stuart Sternberg, the team's principal owner, said during the Rays' run-up to their first World Series. "And this is a big market."

Sternberg, a former Wall Street executive, has been among the few convinced of baseball's long-term viability in the Tampa area. Born the Devil Rays for the 1998 season, Tampa Bay's franchise enjoyed some modest attendance success for the first year (about 2.5 million fans), but it quickly dropped off. From 2000 through '07, as the team continued its losing ways, the Rays had the worst attendance in the American League. In 2007 the Rays drew fewer than 1.4 million fans to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., an average of 17,148 a game. That ranked better than only the National League's Marlins.

Then came the breakout '08 season, the solid start, the whiff of a first winning year and, by mid-season, the realization all around baseball that the Rays were for real. By mid-year -- July 18, to be exact -- the Rays had moved into first place in the AL East for good.

As slow as people around baseball were to recognize the Rays' success, the fans in Central Florida were probably even slower. Attendance still lagged for much of the year. Even in late August, when it became apparent that the Rays were in a real pennant race, the team drew the worst crowds in the majors for three straight days -- an average of fewer than 17,000 a game -- for a series against the best team in baseball, the AL West-leading Angels. "It really takes the wind out of our sails," Rays president Matt Silverman told the St. Petersburg Times.

Attendance finally started to pick up in September -- though sellouts still were hard to come by -- and in the playoffs the Trop was finally full. For the last two games of the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox, and in the two games the Rays hosted in the World Series, the team removed tarps high in the second deck to provide extra seating. The Rays had more than 40,000 people -- sellouts -- for each of those games.

The question now around Tampa Bay is not only how much of a bump in attendance the Rays will get from their '08 run, but how much they'll need to keep up their success on the field. The Rays drew about 1.8 million fans in '08, an average of 22,370 a game. That ranked 26th in the majors, ahead of Oakland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Florida. "We need to get into the 2s," Sternberg says.

Drawing 2 million is not going to be easy, especially in a down economy, but the Rays have been busy selling next year's product for months. During the postseason the team ran a promotion that gave next year's season ticket buyers access to this year's playoff tickets. The team is still working hard at pushing season tickets, the lifeblood of any sports franchise.

The Rays won't release how many season-ticket holders they have, but it's estimated that they sold somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 last season. The Sports Business Journal cited an internal Major League Baseball memo that ranked the Rays 29th of the 30 teams in season-ticket sales. The goal is to climb into the middle of the pack, perhaps somewhere around the 10,000 mark.

"We think that will help us greatly not only retain this core of players for an even longer period of time, but also be able to have some resources to go out and supplement around those guys," says the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman. "Obviously, the more revenues grow, the more we'll be able to do. We'll be more active."

The Rays figure to field nearly the same roster in 2009 that got them to the Series in '08. They'll probably be in the market for an outfielder and some relievers, be it through trade or free agency. They have dabbled in both areas before, getting (among others) key players such as starting pitcher Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and reliever Dan Wheeler in trades, and getting veteran reliever Troy Percival and designated hitter Cliff Floyd on the free-agent market.

However they tinker this offseason, the Rays will need more money in the years ahead because, with a young team -- and players who will be due raises --expenses will rise. The Rays had an Opening Day payroll of around $44 million for '08. It's expected to be around $50 million for '09.

That's only about one quarter of what the Yankees will spend. Still, the Rays are convinced that they can compete. With the current roster they feel especially confident about the next three years, before their current players start to become too expensive for them to retain.

So much of that depends on building on their breakout '08, of convincing people around Tampa Bay that the Rays have finally arrived. This will be the most important offseason in the franchise's existence.

"This," Sternberg said of the Rays' rise into the playoffs, "should put us in a position to be able to succeed."

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