Has Rays' Disney experience run its course?

The Rays are looking to expand their fan base but is Orlando overextending? Ownership is doing a Star Trek, going where others have not, yet attendance Tuesday was less than desirable. Ted Fleming of Rays Digest reports from Lake Buena Vista.

LAKE BUENA VISTA - As an organization historically ignored by fans in their own region, it is not such a bad idea to make an attempt to draw from others.

Or is it?

Spring training ended in St. Petersburg the end of March as the Rays head due south to Port Charlotte for 2009. That's roughly a two-hour drive, one way, for those who choose to make the long drive up to the Sunshine City.

Head north and east and you have Orlando, another 120-minute jaunt to the stadium built on the cheap to draw a big league baseball team.

They built it and they still haven't come. From anywhere, north, east, south or boaters.

I am not one to question how the new ownership group is going about the business of marketing their team but looking out at the chunks of empty seats at Champion Stadium Tuesday night has given me pause on whether this whole exercise is really necessary.

It seems to be a baseball version of the Chinese Fire Drill.

Don't get me wrong, I am all in favor of bringing major league baseball to the masses although it should be left to teams on solid footing like the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers and Red Sox.

But the Rays?

Tampa Bay has yet to show it is a major league town except when Boston and New York come to town, and even the Yanks first trip through St. Pete this year barely budged the yawn meter. The BoSox are up next this weekend.

So what if attendance is up about 4%, the bump is negligible.

Stu Sternberg wants a new stadium. I think any baseball fan here would love one too. Unfortunately, the argument isn't whether to build it downtown, uptown or out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Open air, domed, retractable roof, it still doesn't matter.

34,000 seats or 40,000 seats, the only issue here is how many will go unoccupied day after day.

The more seats available the more the building looks empty to those watching on TV. More about that later.

While it may be true that former managing general partner Vince Naimoli damaged the fan base, some say irreparably, other than opening day on March 31, 1998 there have never been that many people inside Tropicana Field.

Sure there have been glimmers of hope. One series against the Marlins drew big numbers but that was right after one of the most successful road trips in franchise history.

The euphoria lasted all of three games.

A new stadium isn't necessarily the cure-all to attendance woes. Just look at the Pirates. They have one of the most picturesque buildings in all of baseball and it still looks like a mausoleum on most nights.

At least Pittsburgh has a history though.

If they win, the fans come. In Tampa Bay there is no such base line to draw from, unless you start at zero. Not exactly hard facts you can throw against the wall and see if it sticks.

What ifs don't have the charms that soothe the savage breast. New digs could be nothing more than a colossal boondoggle with taxpayers on the hook for years just the way Tropicana Field became the monkey on the backs of Pinellas County residents.

Sure, the economy stinks, filling your gas tank now use to feed a family of four for a week and a lot of other factors go into the attendance malaise, but what was the excuse before all this happened?

Rays' ownership is going the Star Trek route, going where no others went before. Tip your cap to them for at least making an attempt to do something. Naimoli couldn't see past his nose to even market to the neighborhood across the street from his office.

In my mind, Port Charlotte and Orlando is overextending the reach. Being less grandiose could reap more rewards sooner and go after other markets once you have established your regional fan base.

Winning will put some fannies in the seats. It's the nature of the infamous banwagoneers. But that is just part of the equation.

In 2007 the Rangers were the host team at Disney and drew about what they would have at Tropicana Field, give or take a few thousand. The Blue Jays are this year's experiment and the numbers are down, at least for the first game.

And that's with a nice giveaway and great weather too.

Whether it is apathy, the economy or both, the Rays have to reexamine the House of Mouse visit. In fact, they may have to reassess their entire fan outreach program.

A one-hour circle may be more manageable. Two is stretching it especially if they show up for a game like Saturday that lasted two-minutes over two hours in length. Four on the road for two in the stadium?

The Rays can give away the tickets and with the car pool free parking, few are going to make that kind of summer voyage to see something a television can give them. What they save in gas they could invite the neighborhood over for a party.

Then again, ownership looks at the eyeball count too in order to figure success or failure.

They say viewership is up. More ears too and they don't belong to the mouse named Mickey. Goody, goody. That still doesn't give one the true fan experience.

Maybe that's why the song was written: "Take me out to the ballgame ..... "

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