Are the Rays Ready For the Fan Base Evolution?
What defines if a Major League Baseball team has a true fan base? Is it the amount of people flocking into the ballpark for a home series clutching cowbells and noisemakers, or is it the visual show of support at “Watch Parties” even as the team battles 3,000 miles away on a given late night.
Does the simple fact of wearing your MLB club’s colors or even marking your car with a Rays specialty license plate make you a intricate part of the Tampa Bay Rays fan base? That simple term “fan base” can literally be thrown in so many different positions, used in so many cloaked vernaculars, and still you could come up short with the precise connotation of what this unit should entail.
The Rays are in a particularly sensitive juncture in their team’s history as the 14-year faithful of this team, who at one time possibly anointed another team their own, begin to finally mesh with the youth that are beginning of coming of age by purchasing their own tickets and merchandise.
The Rays are about to hit that ebb and flow tidal pool of the stark reality that those fans who have gotten those FREE giveaways on Sundays as teens or younger, are about to become their primary consumers. Other teams have hit this sensitive juncture in their team’s history and their solid foundation within their fan base is a testament to the next generation taking the reigns and guiding the team’s future.
It usually takes around 20-25 MLB seasons for a team, like the Rays to get a solidified fan base built from their fans growing up within the “Rays Way” from the cradle. This youth segment of fans grew up with all things “Rays” around their environment and are about to transcend from being the “guests” of their parents, to purchasing Rays game tickets and plans for themselves.
When that moment happens, that simple ticket purchase will signal the second and most important phase of the Rays fan base expanding towards its next level. This is not meant as a deterrent or even an insult to fans like myself who are “ long in the tooth” and have slaved and died a little at times following this team during the lean years.
The reality is most of us who have established this first generational Rays fan base have a prior MLB team loyalty way before the name Devil Rays was first selected. For myself it was the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals who used to train here every Spring. I would be a constant member of the “Knothole Gang” at games, or at the many MLB training complexes that dotted the St. Petersburg area.
Then when the Tampa Baseball group formed and systematically began their “Eenie, Meenie, Miney-Moe” process of finding an occupant for the vacant stadium nestled in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, I shed those teams colors for my home team. And even as this group saw their ownership aspirations spurned by Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and even the South-side of Chicago, my loyalties began to deepen for this eventual MLB staple that will reside in my home town.
I am what you call a converted fan base member. There were no Rays team for me to live and breathe about as a kid. Back then MLB ball packed up during the last week of March and shipped out up North or West, and never saw the Florida sunshine until the next Spring. There were no Rays uniforms in my Little League.
The aspect of a team playing MLB-style ball during an real MLB season in my neck of the wood was pure fantasy. I had to travel almost all day to Atlanta if I wanted to shag a real MLB ball or see the major leaguers at work. I am one of those fans who had a hankering and knowledge of the game before Rays starter Winston Abreu even threw the first pitch in franchise history. That is what makes this early Rays fan base so unique.
There are former team loyalists from Boston, New York, St. Louis and even Cleveland that have embraced and changed their allegiance towards the Rays flag over these last 14 years. That makes the Rays fan base a more flexible gathering, with some prone to quick exits stage right when things get bad, possibly reverting to their long time family MLB ties.
I have had more than a dozen vocal altercations with long term followers of the Red Sox, Yankees and even Indians that our Rays fan base is in its baby-steps mode. That we have less than 15 years active visual and vocal acknowledgment of our team’s existence.
Their squads have long established and sometimes storied histories and family lineages in some cases, 3 generations back to cement their MLB loyalties. That is why the present youth of this Rays Republic will be this team’s first homegrown generation. The young fans in the Rays stands right now will be the first born and bred supporters and the next in the Rays fan evolution to further solidify the Rays fan base backbone.
This younger segment could eventually decide the Rays future here in Tampa Bay, not the mouthy posturing politicians. The Rays franchise is about to embark into uncharted waters, possibly with a few storm henceforth before eventually coming out into the sunshine.
Fans like myself will always be here in some form or another, but the Rays management would be wise to nurture and help this next level of Rays fans mature, or be doomed by mis-aligning their priorities.
More and more I am seeing the excitement in the faces of young fans at Rays games as they fight for Batting Practice balls, get autographs, and cherish the trinkets and giveaways the team provides to them. Soon it will be their turn to give back to the Rays…..Hopefully they are ready, willing and able to add another chapter, another generation to the Rays unfolding MLB tradition.