TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor says she’s an “eternal optimist” when it comes to keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the region, and part of that confidence is her increasing comfort with the idea of the team playing half the season in Montreal.
“When I first heard of it — just immediately — it’s like ‘that makes no sense.’ But if you look at it from the perspective of baseball, the in-person attendance is dropping nationwide while TV is going up. When people are watching baseball on TV, they could have the two media contracts. And then you don’t have 81 games, which is difficult for even the most hardcore baseball fans to attend. So, you know, let them explore it. It’s something new," Castor said Wednesday in an interview in her office.
Castor has had several informal discussions with Rays co-presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman since St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman closed the door on the split-season concept two weeks ago.
The Rays have told her they’d like to have a stadium built by 2025, she said.
“This right now is just in pencil and notepad stage,” Castor said. "So it’s just going to take so much more negotiating and data crunching and, you know, looking at the possibilities.”
The Rays’ use agreement with St. Petersburg expires at the end of the 2027 season and Castor said the discussions were within “the 2028 arena.” But said she it would be “more than likely” the team would seek to work out a settlement with Tampa Bay’s second-largest city to shorten the contract if things work out across the bay in Tampa.
Redeveloping Tropicana Field’s 86 acres would be a powerful incentive for St. Petersburg to make a deal at that point, she said.
“That land clearly is very valuable,” she said.
And it’s her understanding the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the minor-league soccer franchise owned by the Rays, would also make the trek across the bay if a deal was struck.
“I think that clearly, you know, they own the Rowdies so wherever a stadium is built, that both teams would, I think...be a package," she said.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday, Rays President Matt Silverman said: “We do and have always had a positive relationship with Mayor Castor, and we look forward to continuing discussions regarding ways we can collaborate to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay for generations to come.”
In the previous effort to woo the Rays, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan was the point person. But when he reached out to the Rays Tuesday, Brian Auld told him the team was meeting with Castor.
Hagan and County Administrator Mike Merrill plan to arrange a meeting with the Rays sometime in January.
Although he doesn’t love the split-season idea, Hagan said he’s open to discussing it further. And he thinks the Rowdies and spring training should be part of any split-season deal.
“If it allows us to get to the negotiation table then that’s something we should consider,” Hagan said.
Castor said it’s way too early to talk about potential sites, although she did speak positively about locating a ballpark at or near the Florida State Fairgrounds near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which recently underwent a major hotel expansion.
Orlando has recently expressed interest in a major league franchise, she said, and the northeastern edge of Tampa would be an easier drive for that market.
“It seems to be a good location. You have land there and it’s close to to Orlando. Again, that’s something for the Rays to look at,” Castor said.
For years, the Rays have downplayed the viability of the fairgrounds, but recently the site surfaced in comments by Auld.
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Hillsborough leaders, led by Hagan, proposed a plan to finance a ballpark in Ybor City, which hinged on investment in a federally-designated opportunity zone. That plan for a $892 million domed stadium collapsed a year ago this month when the Rays deep-sixed it, citing a lack of details.
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Rays executives also met with City Council chairman Luis Viera Wednesday in his council office. Auld and Rafaela Amador, vice president of public affairs and corporate communications, briefed him on the options for Tampa and Hillsborough.
Viera said the half-season concept hasn’t generated “a ton of excitement” so far, but he’s keeping an open mind.
“I’m not dismissing it as dead on arrival. I want to see a plan,” Viera said.
And the Rays will need to persuade Tampa and Hillsborough residents that it’s worth their time and money to support a team that would depart for cooler climes when the summer heats up.
When the Ybor deal was still alive, Viera said he would see Rays executives at nearly every civic meeting.
“They need to make the same level of vigorous engagement with the public that we had before when we had a whole loaf of bread instead of a half loaf,” Viera said.
Where Viera sees a half loaf, Castor sees a ballpark built for half the price of the nearly $1 billion Ybor proposal.
“We need to explore all of our options of keeping them here. If it means a split season and that’s viable, then we need to explore that,” she said.