Tampa Bay Rays’ cashless ballpark bad messaging

Tampa Bay Rays’ cashless ballpark bad messaging
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.—Say this for the Rays: They are innovative and unafraid. It is not an exaggeration to say they have helped revolutionize the way Major League Baseball executives think when it comes to evaluating players and performance.

Also say this for the Rays: They have trouble connecting with people. You can blame demographics for the team’s attendance woes, but it’s also true that ownership has never figured out a better way of reaching Tampa Bay’s fans.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who have finished last in American League attendance in six of the last seven seasons, announced this week that Tropicana Field will become the United States’ first completely cashless venue in 2019.  (MONICA HERNDON / Tribune News Service)

Those two concepts seemed to collide when the team recently announced that Tropicana Field would become the United States’ first completely cashless venue in 2019.

It’s a bold idea, and the Rays say plenty of research indicates it will lead to a better, more streamlined fan experience at the stadium. That may be true in theory. And it may be the wave of the future.

But it ignores the reality that a lot of people, for whatever reason, prefer to use cash. Even worse, this unilateral decision carries an unmistakable whiff of arrogance: We know what’s best for you.

Essentially, that’s what the Rays are saying. And that’s a horrible message to send when you’re in the business of trying to attract more customers. Especially when you’re the worst in the league at that skill.

I’m not saying Rays ownership is to blame for the team’s historically bad attendance. The fact that Miami, a similar market, also draws poorly indicates an endemic problem. The fact the Rays also drew poorly before the current ownership group took over is another clue.

But I am saying, for all their innovation on the baseball side of the business, the Rays have never been particularly adept at forging a relationship with local people.

And this is one more example.

It would be one thing if the Rays were offering something innovative as an alternate choice for fans. But they’re not doing that. They’re offering something innovative as the only choice for fans.

That distinction is important. It’s got a very take-it-or-leave-it quality to it. Maybe you can do that when you’re selling out a stadium, and fans can’t wait to open their wallets to give you more money.

But it seems self-defeating to dictate conditions to an indifferent fan base.

I’m sure the Rays already anticipated pushback. It’s why they’ll be offering gift cards for purchase at retail outlets and with roaming vendors inside Tropicana Field. They’ll say it’s just like using cash. Except for this:

It’s actually adding another layer of hassle, which is the exact opposite of the team’s stated intention.

Now I realize one of the tenets of the entertainment business is getting fans to spend money in advance so they don’t change their minds at the last minute. That’s why The Who is already selling tickets in January for a concert in September. That’s why the Rays tack on a day-of-game surcharge on tickets.

So getting fans to buy gift cards in advance almost guarantees they will show up at Tropicana Field for some upcoming homestand, and that seems like a good business strategy.

But what do you do with a $10 gift card that has $2 left on it? Do you now have to buy a second gift card so you can combine them to pay for your next $8 beer? And what about all of those gift cards that get lost or forgotten with $2 left on them? That’s free money in the team’s pocket.
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