Why the Rays think their Montreal idea is so ‘amazing’

Owner Stuart Sternberg said this is all about keeping baseball in Tampa Bay and why it would work better.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg cuffs his ear to hear a question from the media during a Rays announcement at the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, that they want to play half of their home games in Montreal, Canada. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg cuffs his ear to hear a question from the media during a Rays announcement at the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, that they want to play half of their home games in Montreal, Canada. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published June 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays don’t have all the answers, even when pressed late Tuesday afternoon how confident they are of their radical plan to split future seasons between new open-air stadiums in Tampa Bay and Montreal actually coming to fruition.

But they had enough during a Dali museum media session and a later meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board to make clear how serious, committed and excited they are about it, even more so than the since-scuttled plan to build a fixed-roof stadium in Ybor City.

“I’m confident it’s an amazing idea,’’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. “Every turn, every what-if, what-if, what-if, only leads to more opportunity, more fandom, more joys.’’

Related: MORE RAYS: Kriseman said the city and Rays need 'a good working relationship'

In their first comments since the plan became public last week with permission from Major League Baseball to explore the possibility of sharing home games, the Rays talked as much about what it could mean and what it didn’t.

For one, that it was not in any way a step toward moving the team completely out of the Tampa Bay area.

“To be clear, this is not a staged exit,’’ Sternberg said, acknowledging a higher “level of suspicion” in the reaction than they expected. “That thought has never entered my mind. This is not us taking even one glance toward a relocation to Montreal. I rejected that idea years ago and I continue to reject that idea today.

“This is not a page out of a playbook to gain leverage. We are focused on this plan. We are focused on how the Rays can thrive here in Tampa Bay. This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one as well — a permanent arrangement, a generational commitment to both communities.’’

For another, that it could be all but the last chance to keep Major League Baseball, albeit on a limited basis, in the Tampa Bay area, significant discounting the chances of pivoting back to pursuing a new full-time home in the Tampa Bay area.

“We never say never but after all we’ve been through and what we’ve learned it’s highly unlikely,’’ Sternberg said, then adding “really difficult” and “very challenging” as further qualifiers.

“I don’t see it happening in St. Petersburg, and I would be hard-pressed to see it happen in Tampa as well, just given what I know.’’

Related: MORE RAYS: Stu-realism on display at Rays' museum exhibition

That means if this plan doesn’t work, the Rays would be looking at staying at Tropicana Field until their use agreement expires after the 2027 season as “lame duck as lame duck gets,’’ Sternberg said.

The key element of the plan is building new ballparks in both communities — open air and intimate, with 30,000 or fewer seats — with the team basically following the weather, opening the season in the Tampa Bay area then moving north by early June, after about 35 games, and finishing up in Montreal. They’d hope to start doing so in 2024, and make long-term commitments in both markets.

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What makes it workable, they said, is that the open-air stadiums are less expensive to build, at a rough cost of about $600 million, than with a roof, and take up less space (maybe just 9-10 acres), which creates more options in terms of sites. The Rays expect the cost of the stadiums to be shared between corporate, government and team contributions but said they didn’t have any specific number they would contribute, which was a point of contention in the talks for the Tampa stadium.

Team president Matt Silverman said while they felt that had to find the “perfect” location in picking the Ybor site the standards are less stringent for this project.

Though they insisted they were open to many options, they did acknowledge that the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront site of Al Lang Stadium, which they currently control as owner of the Rowdies soccer team, was “definitely a possibility.’’ (So too, Sternberg said, in a less than optimal outcome, would be getting a new stadium in Montreal but staying at the Trop.)

That is particularly interesting because perhaps the largest of a series of major hurdles to get the deal worked out is permission from St. Petersburg, given that they are required to play all home games at Tropicana Field until their least agreement expires after the 2027 season, and can’t even talk to other locations.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who initially dismissed the plan, said Tuesday he would be willing to talk about it, kind of, with the caveats that the new stadium was built in St. Petersburg and with no city contribution.

“If Mr. Sternberg wishes to formally explore this concept with me and his desire to privately and fully fund a new stadium in the City of St. Petersburg, I am willing to listen,’’ Kriseman said in a statement. “The City of St. Petersburg will not participate in the funding of a new stadium for a part-time team. We remain receptive to partnering with the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and build a new stadium for a full-time team. St. Pete’s future has never been brighter and every business and baseball team in America should want to be a part of it.’’

Kriseman also took a slight jab: “Finally, I believe progress moves at the speed of the trust. If Mr. Sternberg is serious about this idea or any other, it will require the re-establishment of a good working relationship with my office.”

Sternberg sort of did, too, point out that Kriseman will be out of office in 2022.

“If I have to do this with the next mayor I’ll do it with the next mayor,’’ Sternberg said.

The Rays pitch the plan as a solution to their ongoing issues with a lack of attendance and corporate support by reducing the inventory of games, acknowledging that 81 is too many to sell, at least in this market noting the number of transplants, geography, lack of a central business base.

“A lot of things that make this a fabulous place to live, work and play make it uniquely ill-suited to supporting a major-league baseball team,’’ team president Brian Auld said.

Related: MORE RAYS: A peek behind the curtain of the Rays' Montreal plan

The Rays see the new Tampa Bay stadium hosting more than just the 35 or so regular season games, with the potential to move their spring base back from Port Charlotte and play the usual 15 or so exhibitions there. Another option could be to have the Rowdies play there, or perhaps get a higher level Major Soccer League franchise, plus other events such as concerts.

The Rays believe the plan could work financially because they could get increased revenues with the consolidated schedule increasing demand in both markets and are adamant — though not necessarily correct — that fans in both communities would embrace the shared team rather than be antagonistic. Also, that the team would be an economic driver in terms of tourism and even corporate investment in developing a “sister city’ relationship between the two distinctly different communities 1,500 miles apart.

There are a large number of unresolved issues, including why the Montreal group, led by Stephen Bronfman, son of former Expos owner Charles, would go along rather than get a team fulltime via expansion or relocation. That group will hold a media conference Wednesday in Montreal.

Sternberg said he would be opening to take on some Montreal investors as minority partners in the team but had no plans to relinquish control and definitely not in selling the team.

The Rays said details such as the team name and where postseason games will be played are on the list of things to worked out in the future.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.