Friday, October 21, 2011

A Letter to Stu Sternberg

Dear Stu,

You might not know me. My name is Michael Lortz and I write here occasionally. I have also shared a season ticket package with friends or owned my own season ticket package every year since 2008. I’ve probably been to approximately 100 Rays games since 2008 and consider Game 162 of the 2011 season as one of the greatest moments of my life as a baseball fan. You and your operations people have done a fantastic job of transforming the on-the-field product since you came aboard and I commend you for that.

But I am not writing you to talk about baseball. I am writing you in regards to your connection with the fan base. I’m writing you because as a concerned fan it appears not enough people enjoy your product like I do. I believe you and the Tampa Bay Rays organization are not capturing the hearts and minds of the Tampa Bay area as well as you should.

Before I begin, let me address the elephant in the room and the inspiration for this letter. I know you are often asked by members of the media about the lack of attendance. Few writers in the mainstream can talk about the Rays without talking about us, the fan base, and those comments and questions eventually reach you. That they repeatedly ask doesn’t bother me. What bothers me are your answers. You have often spoken in a detached manner about us. Maybe enough of us haven’t met your expectations. But that doesn’t mean those who do go to the games, who do buy the merchandise, who do watch telecasts regularly deserve to be lumped in with those whose hearts you haven’t yet won over.

How about telling the media that the Rays have “the greatest fans in the world”, even if you don’t think it’s true? Like a woman, we respond well to compliments. Hearing from you that not enough of us go to games and that you might eventually move the team if we don’t get our collective butts to the ballpark is like telling your wife her dress actually does makes her look fat. It might be true, but you shouldn’t say it.

Although I am not privy to your behind-the-scenes discussions with players, coaches, and other personnel, I doubt you talk about them in the manner you discuss us. Have you ever said publicly that if BJ Upton or Evan Longoria or even James Shields don’t perform up to your expectations they will be moved out of the Tampa Bay area? If you don’t talk about your employees like that, please don’t make those comments about those who are supposed to buy your product. You don’t attract bees with vinegar, Stu.

Second, I would like to talk to you about “Moneyball”.  As a baseball person, I’m sure you are familiar with the story and now movie of Billy Bean and the state of the Oakland A’s after the departure of Jason Giambi, our own Johnny Damon, and brief Rays pitcher Jason Isringhausen. I’m sure many of your baseball operations staff are also familiar with the story as well.

In Moneyball, the A’s front office realizes that regardless of where the runs come from, the goal is a cumulative amount of runs scored and to allow no greater than a lesser amount. Your goal, as I see it, is to make money. That is your bottomline, whether those dollars come from tickets, hot dogs, t-shirts, corporate funding, or advertising. According to, in 2008 you needed 168 million in total operating costs. I am going to guess your bottomline goal in 2012 is close to, if not slightly over 175 million dollars. I am also going to guess it doesn’t matter where that money comes from. You could have 175 million fans paying one dollar or one fan who paid 175 million for an exclusive season.

This year you competed and won with a payroll at least 50% below average in your division. That is outstanding. Yet your attendance lagged in the bottom of the league. I’m sure you know the gory details, but over the last five years, the Rays have ranked 14th, 12th, 11th, 9th, and 13th in attendance in the American League. If you match those positions with the equivalent losses in the American League, that would be 96 (TB), 88 (Det), 87 (Tor), 81 (Det), and 95 (Sea). The average in the standings are equivalent to a team that loses 89 games a season.

Stu, I would think if the team was losing 90 games a season, you would look at and re-evaluate your baseball operations staff, and of course you did that. Now with you not wholly satisfied and the fan base not performing to your expectations, have you taken a deep look to see if your marketing staff is doing all it can? I know the Rays strive for that extra 2% on the ballfield, but unfortunately you are losing 19% in the stands. Your franchise preaches finding another way on the field, yet when it comes to marketing and promotions, you seem to run business as usual.

Although I am as much of a Marketing Expert as I am a Baseball Operations Expert, which is to say not much, I see the Rays applying different techniques in Player Development but seemingly employing the same tried techniques of Fan Development that all other teams do. I do not think with your current situation you can market the Rays as you would market the Yankees, the Dodgers, or the Cubs. Because of the Rays demographic environment, you can’t rely on the same methodology those teams rely on to attract fans. If you can win the AL Wild Card with a 50 million dollar budget, then you can also make your financial goals of a successful Major League Team with the obstacles in place in Tampa Bay. You just have to think differently.

I know baseball is baseball and that alone should be enough to draw fans. You are in the business of selling baseball entertainment and we are the buyers. The bottom line, however, is that you are not only in the business of putting a good team on the field and winning games, and while here in Tampa Bay you are also in the business of entertaining people. And to do that you must understand what is entertainment means to a Floridian.

Curious, I took a look at your Front Office page on the Rays website. There are at least 40 names in your baseball operations staff, yet there are only 10 in your Marketing and Community Relations. Ten. While you have several “baseball research and development” personnel, you have no “market and demographic analysis” folks in your marketing department. That strikes me as odd, considering your franchise’s current struggles.

While being a fan is not something you can measure statistically and hence use the same methodology of your baseball operations staff, I would like to see the Rays do more to increase passion in the team in 2012. While it is true you have done some creative individual promotions and you have captured a loyal and dedicated social media fanbase, I don’t think you have done everything possible to win the hearts and minds of Tampa Bay. Most importantly, you haven’t emphasized pride in being a Rays fan. You haven’t created a “Rays Family”.

You need to involve fans more in 2012 than you ever have. May I offer a few suggestions?

One: You could have a youtube-based contest for Biggest Rays Fan and Best Rays Family. Many talent shows on television do this and they are wildly successful. Maybe you could offer the winner some sort of season ticket package.

Second: You could capture .gifs of scoreboard shots and upload them on a Tumblr page. If you are not familiar with these web terms, I’m sure your marketing team is. Fans already enjoy seeing themselves on the scoreboard, why not let them download those short video captures to their personal blogs, website, Facebook, or Tumblrs?

Third: You could have a Ladies Night. Ladies Nights are familiar and successful in bars throughout the area and there is no reason why you couldn’t use the same idea. Perhaps ladies can buy walk up tickets for half off one Friday per month and can get half off alcohol and food until the fifth inning. Of course, there would be a two drink limit per customer per purchase.

Fourth: You could also experiment with more free nights. I know you had a ticket give-away night in 2010 that was very well attended. How about using that same strategy for a Tuesday game against a traditionally less-competitive opponent in the middle of July? The only stipulation is that all food or drink must be purchased at the stadium – fans are not allowed to bring in food or drink. If the goal is to make a certain amount of money per game, does it matter if the income comes from tickets or concessions? You might even do a lottery for free lower level seats.

Fifth: You could do more with other local entertainment venues. How about a Dali night with uniforms designed by a famous Dali-inspired artist recommended by the Dali Museum? I think it would be very interesting to see Dali-inspired scoreboard videos and player introductions.

You might also look at cross-promotion with Busch Gardens. Maybe even bring an elephant and a giraffe through Gate 6 and into centerfield after a game. You could do this on a Sunday along with a kids’ day. In turn, you could have some of the Rays players promote Busch Gardens.

Sixth: More cowbell. The cowbell has been sadly marginalized as a symbol of the Rays since 2009. While other teams are still waving their victory towels, the sound of cowbells has been decreasing in recent years. The cowbell made us original. It gave us a unique sound – something to rally around. And best of all, it drove the fan bases of other teams insane.

More than anything, we need to create a community of Rays fans. We need to celebrate the people that go to Tropicana Field, whether it’s everyday or once a year. We need to promote and rally around the characters of the Trop, whether they be the “Left, Right, Left, Right” folks far above home plate, the Cowbell Kid, or anyone else who wants to step to the plate to represent the Rays fanbase. Whereas we used to have “The Johnnies” for Johnny Gomes and the bare-chested Kazmir fans, we need to foster the creation of new characters. Maybe even discounted tickets for costumed fans.

In conclusion, Mr. Sternberg, I love your product. I love the Rays and I love going to the Trop. It is the home park for our local team and will be so for 2012 and in the immediate future. I want everyone else to love the Rays as much as I do. But I can’t do it myself. I need your help.

Thank you, best of luck this offseason, and see you in April,

Michael Lortz