Monday, October 20, 2008

It pays for Rays to mix up the brand

For the past decade, I've supported the team that's been pretty much the worst in baseball. But no more. Yep, I'm still a Tampa fan, but after 10 losing seasons, the Rays have come up trumps. Against all the odds, they're off to the World Series to face the Phillies.

Over the last few weeks I've stayed up late into the night watching Crawford, Longoria, Garza and co first reach the playoffs, then dispose of the White Sox and finally, very early this morning win 3-1 over the Red Sox to win the American League series 4-3 and stretch credulity once more by getting to the final two in MLB.

Now, it always makes me laugh that the World Series in played for only by US sides - with the Blue Jays waving the flag for the rest of humanity. But baseball's all-American and this is the quintessential heart of what's good about the world's last Superpower.
Hopefully we're in a post-drugs era for the sport (though I wouldn't bank on it), and it's far more of a spectacle that gridiron or ice hockey. With the nosediving of the Yankees this year, it was obvious that there was an opportunity for an aspiring team to put themselves forward, but no-one expected it to be the Rays.

But the St.Petersburg franchise, for so long the Devil Rays, have ditched their devils. New owners have overhauled the organisation from top to bottom, inside to out. From rebranding as simply the Rays, to new coloured kit, to a refresh for the unlovely Tropicana Field (and the prospect of a new waterfront home on the horizon), the club has an entirely new outlook on baseball.

For so long, home fans for matches against the likes of the Sox and Yankees have been in the minority as relocated northerners have stuck to their traditional allegiances. But an off-field outreach programme to get local baseball fans to support the local team, backed by astute signings in both management and on field talent have turned things round for the Rays.
The likes of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, BJ Upton and Scott Kazmir remain from the bad old days, but they've been reinforced by seasoned veterans and exciting new talent to produce the Bay's first winning season - and what a season. Aybar, Bartlett, Longoria, Pena and the rest will probably never have to buy a drink again in any Floridian Gulf Coast bar. If they can overcome the Phillies, they're made for life.
Even from across the Atlantic in what's less than a hotbed of baseball interest, I can see that Brand Tampa Bay Rays is strong, coherent and successful - yet still operating on a budget a fraction of many of their rivals. It's amazing what can be achieved with a clear vision, and great execution by one team, all across the organisation, pulling together. The job's not done yet. But already it's feeling pretty good.

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