The Tampa Bay Lightning might just be helping to make the case for the Rays that having a home in downtown can pay off at the gate. The Tampa Bay Times Forum has a capacity for hockey of 19,204 and thus far this season the Lightning is averaging 18,218 per game good enough to rank them 11th best out of the 30 teams in the NHL.
That by the way is better than the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks to name just a few of the major cites that the team playing in Tampa is beating at the gate. More impressive might be that they are also beating teams from Canada where hockey is a religion. Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg also trail the Bolts. (It should be noted that Winnipeg has a smaller arena, so there capacity is less than 18,000 seats.)
Clearly the Bolts put a competitive team on the ice and have a very aggressive marketing plan that makes for a fan friendly experience at The Forum. The Lightning and the Tampa Bay Rays share the same fan base, but there is a very important difference between the two organizations.
The Lightning playing their home games in Tampa at The Form are about an hour closer to their fans than are the Rays located in St. Petersburg. Tampa being at the cross roads of I-4 and I 75 allow easy access for fans to get to the arena from as far east as the Orlando area and still get home at a descent hour.
The distance from The Forum to Tropicana Field, the home of the Rays is about 24 miles to the west making it more difficult for their fan base to get to games. In 2013 the Rays drew an average of just 18,645 coming out to the Trop to see a team that has given their fans six straight winning seasons. That streak is a short list as only the Yankees and Cardinals are on it with Tampa Bay.
The Rays have also made it to the Major League Baseball postseason four of the past six seasons. All of this success with the third lowest payroll in baseball. Clearly the city of Tampa and Hillsborough county seem ready to start conversations with the Rays for a move to Tampa.
Meanwhile, expect Major League Baseball to use all of their resources to extract the team from St. Petersburg. Timing is everything and now might be the time that the Rays can make the move across. It will take a great deal of creativity to make a new stadium deal work but if baseball is ever to survive in the Tampa Bay area the ball park needs to be closer to the fans.
The Lightning have shown that you can bring people to downtown by providing an entertaining product and now it is time for the Rays to build on that template.