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Sternberg bullish on fan base, future

Sternberg bullish on fan base, future

ST. PETERSBURG -- Stuart Sternberg held court before Monday night's game against the Red Sox, and the Rays' principal owner generally sounded pleased with the way things have gone this season and was optimistic about the future.

Rays fans have been in the national limelight for their attendance, or lack thereof, for a first-place team in the American League East. Heading into Monday night's contest, the club ranked 12th in the league in attendance with an average nightly mark of 21,573 per game. Sternberg did not call out the fans, instead, he was understanding, citing the fact that having more of a season-ticket fanbase would make the daily task of filling the ballpark a less daunting task. And based on Tampa Bay's past, the prospect of selling season tickets prior to this season was a difficult proposition.

Season tickets are "everything," Sternberg said. "We've got some season tickets. And it's grown a lot from what it was a few years ago. Any success of a Major League franchise is contingent on its season-ticket base. And while we've grown it, we've taken steps to do it. People couldn't have necessarily seen it before the season. But it makes it difficult to go out there every night and sell those tickets.

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"I would have liked to have seen more advanced sales, Internet and stuff like that. ... Next year will be a watershed as far as that goes."

Sternberg said a lot of the ground to be gained in regard to season tickets comes down to getting businesses behind the team.

"And businesses sometimes take a little longer because of sponsorships, and we've made huge strides in that area," Sternberg said. "And then the season tickets come, but a lot of that comes from businesses, small businesses, large businesses, medium-sized businesses. ... There's no question the economy hasn't helped us. But I do think we've done a lot here. ... I would anticipate in the next year, we will see some of the fruits from it."

Sternberg said he was disappointed that the initial plans for a new stadium had to be put on hold, but he said he had confidence in the community coalition put in place to study the prospect of a new ballpark.

Sternberg also expressed optimism about being able to bring both sides of the area -- Tampa and St. Petersburg -- together, which has been a difficult proposition in the past.

"No question [the Rays are making strides in that area]," Sternberg said. "While winning doesn't cure all ills, I think it helps a lot and people have to get comfortable with our location whether it's south or north or east."

Ultimately, Sternberg surmised there have been a lot of positives to be taken from the 2008 season, despite the fact that the Rays have not drawn as well as most first-place teams.

"I think the proof will be next year -- once this year is done and people have gotten used to the fact we're a winning organization and an organization they're proud of, to see from Day 1 how we hit the ground," Sternberg said. "And if we're having these conversations next year at this time, I might have a different answer for you. But right now I think we're trying to look at the positives."

So, in essence, he said, "The question is how we go forward from this year.

"Because we enjoy every day of this year and every minute this season brings, and however long this season goes and then our focus goes to next year and it will be a very critical year for the business."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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