It has been a while since I wrote from a fan perspective. This site and its predecessor were highly analytical stomping grounds, where charts were composed and numbers were studied. Where starting pitchers had negligible impacts on attendance and stars counted less than wins.
I still believe that.
But what about morale? What about the idea that making fans feel good about liking their team is a good thing? What about giving people who support you something to believe in?
What is there to believe in for Rays fans? You could believe the team will win 90 games in 2021. That's not a bad place to put your faith. They have won 90 games the past two seasons, and their front office often makes chicken salad out of chicken scraps, so 90 wins is a good thing to believe in.
You could believe in certain players. You could believe Tyler Glasnow could be better or that Randy Arozarena's postseason was a harbinger of amazing days to come. Those are great things to believe in.
Would you believe the Tampa Bay Rays have faith in their own fans? Would you believe they have faith in the region? Would you believe Stu Sternberg wouldn't pack up every Rays-branded bat, ball, and glove and move out as soon as possible if given the chance?
Sports Illustrated writer Emma Baccellieri wrote a fantastic piece on the recent trade of Blake Snell on Monday. Of her excellent essay, this was the paragraph I liked the best:
If fandom is a contract—unspoken, unwritten, but a contract all the same—the team’s end of the bargain is supposed to be acting in good faith. The most basic violation here is a team that does not show appropriate interest or investment in winning. (Just pick your favorite example.) But fans watch for reasons other than the chance to win, and so, of course, there are other ways to violate the contract. There is a deal like this one. It comes partially at a cost for winning—for the present, at least. But the far larger cost is to the sense of any familiar relationship with players, and that, too, is an essential aspect of fandom. To have it ripped out by the roots, again and again, in the name of payroll-cutting and window-adjusting, can feel like a violation of the fandom contract as much as any other.
This paragraph got me thinking. Is there a social contract between fans and teams? What is a sports franchise's obligation?
Although I really like Bacellieri's line of thought, I don't think the agreement is about winning or even familiarity with the players. Did Cubs fans really care that the Cubs didn't win for 100 years as long as the sun shone on Wrigley Field and beer and hot dogs were readily available? Is a team there to win or to entertain? Entertainment is the lifeblood of Minor League Baseball, where wins are nice, but don't really matter. A true analysis of the impact of wins to attendance in various markets has not been done to my knowledge.
So let's take winning out of the equation.
What about familiarity with the players? Is that necessary? I might be in the minority, but I don't believe it is.
I would be interested in seeing attendance trends when star position players were traded or left via free agency. Nationals attendance dropped 300,000 fans from 2018 to 2019 with the subtraction of Bryce Harper. But the Nationals still won the World Series. So did they violate the contract? Without comparing game-to-game attendance, we don't know how much of an impact Harper's departure really had.
What we do know is that starting pitchers average 15 starts at home a season. A decrease in those 15 games would not have a large impact on the overall season attendance. So let's put familiarity aside.
Let's look at "acting in good faith".
When was the last time Stu Sternberg acted in good faith? When was the last time Rays fans thought he was a good guy? When was the last time Rays fans thought Sternberg had their best interest in mind?
Personally, I have been critiquing Sternburg's message to the fanbase since 2011. Nine years of poor messaging is a lot to handle.
Compare Sternberg to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik for a moment. Vinik is making billions on Tampa Bay real estate. He is profiting off entire city blocks. But everything he has done, from revitalizing the arena to creating a championship team to working with USF to creating new office spaces, has at least appeared to be in the best interest of the people, especially Lightning fans.
Vinik's approval rating among Lightning fans is probably 100%.
While the Rays aren't in the real estate business, they can't even say how managing their team is done in the fans' best interest. It's like they don't care about the fans. I feel bad for their marketing and ticket sales staff.
The Tampa Bay Rays can't even guarantee they will be playing in Tampa Bay in 7 years.
Where will the Cubs be playing? Chicago.
Where will the Giants be playing? San Francisco.
Where will the Marlins be playing? Miami.
The playoff-less Mariners will still be playing in Seattle.
At least 28 other teams (with the exception of Oakland) can guarantee to their fanbases that they will still be playing in their cities in 2028. Even Tampa Bay's Minor League teams (Tarpons, Threshers, Blue Jays, and Marauders) can guarantee as long there is a Minor League season, they will be playing in their municipalities.
(Which is part of the problem as I wrote about five years ago. Analyzing the faith and good will of our local elected leaders to support Major League Baseball is a whole other essay.)
The Rays social contract with their fan base is in shambles. For many fans, it is completely broken.
Stu Sternberg's approval rating among Rays fans is probably less than 33%. And that's only because they credit him with hiring folks who do bring smiles to the faces of Rays fans.
No fan expects winning every year (with the exception of Yankees fans, and no one likes them). But expecting your team to have a good relationship with your fanbase and your region is expected. The Rays are good at rebuilding on the field, but off the field is where the most work needs to be done.
If they care.