Thursday, December 11, 2014

Estimating Rays attendance if they move to Tampa

In light of the pending decision to possibly let the Rays look for locations for a new stadium in Hillsborough County, one of the biggest questions is "Will it matter?". Specifically, assuming TV and radio ratings stay the same, will a new ballpark have a significant effect on long-term attendance?

(We have look at long-term attendance because many studies have identified a "honeymoon effect", in which the allure of a new stadium spikes attendance, even if the team's on-the-field quality is poor. A new stadium has attraction value for its first few years.)

Bobby Lewis of tried to make the case that following a honeymoon effect, attendance to Rays home games might return to Tropicana Field levels. Lewis cited examples in Washington, Minnesota, and Miami as reasons for his case.

I disagree. Besides the fact that every market is unique and each faces its own challenges and situations, there is statistical reason to believe the Rays will do better in more central location.

In order to understand how the Rays might do in a new location, we have to look at how other sports teams do in that location. For example, if the Rays move to a location near Channelside or between Channelside and Ybor, they would be drawing from the same population base as the Tampa Bay Lightning. The population radii would be similar and travel to each stadium would be similar.

Currently, population radius and travel to the stadium are the biggest points people use in argument against Tropicana Field. According to the argument, these factors, combined with time length of the event, cause people to stay home instead of attend a Rays game. After working 9-to-5, they opt not to travel to the ballpark. Instead, they opt to go on the weekends.

(Average time of the event: MLB - slightly over 3 hours / NHL - 2 hours and 20 minutes)

Here is a breakdown of the Rays attendance during the week and on the weekends since 2007. For giggles, I also included the percentage of games versus Boston and New York played on the weekend.

A few things we see here:

First and foremost, since 2007, the Rays have drawn over 38% more people for weekend games than on weekday games. Only in 2008 was their weekend/weekday difference below 20%. In 2007 and 2014, the Rays drew over 50% more people for weekend games than weekday games.

Second, while the Rays average attendance on the weekends hasn't changed much since 2011, average weekday attendance has steadily dropped, from 17K in 2011 to 14K in 2014.

Here is a breakout of the Lightning attendance on weekdays and weekends since the 2007-2008 season.

Although their capacity is much smaller (only 19,204 compared to over 30,000 for Tropicana Field), the Lightning difference in weekend/weekday attendance is drastically smaller. Since the 2007-2008 season, the average weekday game draws 95% of the attendance of the average weekend game.

Even more shocking is the Lightning average weekday attendance has been above the Rays average weekday attendance every year since 2011. The Lightning have averaged over 18K on weekdays each year while the Rays haven't topped the 18K weekday average since 2010.

Since most polls claim MLB is more popular than the NHL in Tampa Bay, how else to explain this but location, location, location.

If the Rays were to move to Tampa in a location near Amalie Arena, we can estimate attendance during the week would be equal to the Lightning, if not more. Of course, demographic and income studies could clarify this, and I intend to get to those eventually.

But using the MLB average of a 20% increase in weekend attendance, and estimating MLB attendance based on the highest Tampa Bay NHL attendance, we can give the Rays a very safe, very preliminary estimated attendance.

(Note: We cannot assume due to a new Rays stadium location that weekday attendance would be 95% of weekend attendance as it is for the Lightning. In 2014, only 5 teams had a less than 5% weekend/weekday difference: the Giants, Red Sox, Cardinals, Angels, and the Dodgers. Of these teams, only the Cardinals had a 30-minute population radius under 2 million.

There is no feasible way baseball passion in the Tampa Bay area will mirror baseball passion in St. Louis. Tampa Bay sports demographics are far too fragmented to create a Cardinals-like fanbase. So the 5% difference is beyond reach.)

If the Rays can draw 19,000 per weekday to a new downtown Tampa location, and if they achieve only the MLB average of a 20% increase on weekends, then:

19,000 x 43 games = 817,000

19,000 x 20% = 22,800

22,800 x 38 = 866,400

Total attendance = 1,683,400

As mentioned, this is a very low estimate. But it would move the Rays to 28th in 2014 MLB attendance.

If we use the Rays 2007-2014 weekend/weekday average increase of 38%, Rays attendance looks a bit better.

19,000 x 43 = 817,000

19,000 x 38% = 26,220

26,220 x 38 = 996,360

Total attendance: 1,813,360

This total would move the Rays to 26th in 2014 MLB attendance. Again, this is also a very conservative number that does not calculate for demographics, regional income, and corporate support, and barely accounts for the difference in popularity between Major League Baseball and the NHL.

But there is clear and justifiable reason to believe attendance will increase if a new Rays stadium is in the vicinity of Amalie Arena.

The question now is: Is that increase worth the cost of moving?