ST. PETERSBURG — Even after 10 days of talking, texting, tweeting, and even some thoughtful analysis, there is still so much we don’t know about the Rays’ plan to split future seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal beginning in 2024.
At the top is whether the Rays will even get permission from St. Petersburg, one way or another, to engage in negotiations to fully explore the plan.
Close second, even if the money and land for two new stadiums is there, is whether the Rays would get all the requisite permissions, most notably from the players union and major-league owners.
Also, is there enough of an embrace from fans in both markets who are going to be told this timeshare is the best and highly likely only option to have a team?
And, of course, if it fails, what will the Rays do next? Do they pivot back to seeking a new full-time home in a Tampa Bay market they pretty much have now said isn’t viable, or do they just start counting the days until they can leave freely after the 2027 season, maybe even buy their way out sooner?
Watching it unfold will be highly intriguing. Here are a few things from the past week to remember as it does:
First things first
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg says they have been trying but cannot pinpoint the birth of the split-season concept, saying there is “no authorship.’’
They had talks a couple of years ago with Montreal leaders inquiring if they wanted to move or sell the team, which the Rays said they rebuffed, and sometime after that “it was just sort of there in the ether.’’
But the Rays definitely think this is the way of the future, that other teams in other sports eventually will be doing this. (Hmmm, just think of the pairings. Maybe Nashville partnering an expansion pitch with Las Vegas, given they already market the “Nashvegas” concept.)
The Rays think of themselves as smart, advanced, outside-the-box and ahead-of-the-game thinkers. So like defensive shifts, using the opener, and cashless stadiums, they see themselves at the front end of this concept.
“We like to be first,’’ team president Brian Auld said.
Time will sell
The Rays knew the plan wouldn’t be well received locally, but they seem to have underestimated the negative reaction. Sternberg admitted the levels of vitriol and suspicion were “higher” than expected.
But, in asking for open-mindedness for what Sternberg acknowledged is perceived as a “cockamamie” idea, the Rays fully expect people (paging St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman) to warm to it the more they think about it. They feel it has, and they are banking on area leaders and influencers to come around and come out in support, such as the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, which did so on Friday.
Expect to see more of that and a marketing push from the team. The Rays will continue to sell the economic benefits of a new open-air stadium — wherever it might be (the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront Al Lang site is getting a lot of chatter) — hosting spring exhibitions, 35 or so regular-season games, soccer, concerts and more. Plus they will sell the additional tourism and corporate business from Montrealers.
One way the Rays are selling the idea is how the additional revenue from having two home markets will allow them to move into the middle tier among the 30 major-league teams, revenue-wise, and thus spend more on players than they typically do.
“If this comes to fruition, we’re going to have more resources, and more resources means a higher payroll, and a higher payroll is good for all players within baseball,’’ team president Matt Silverman said, noting they would have “more margin for error” in spending on free agents.
Added Auld: “It fundamentally changes the dynamics around our ability to compete in the American League East. If we can do all this, we’re going to be a more competitive ballclub long term than we could be in the best-case scenario in the pin-perfect location in Tampa.’’
Ploy or plan?
If the Rays are, as some suspect, just floating the Montreal plan as a way to spur negotiations for a new stadium in Tampa, they are A) better actors than we knew and B) going to have a lot to walk back.
Sternberg, in a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, was asked, “If you had the choice between the stadium in Tampa that was on the table until six months ago and what you are proposing today, which do you choose?” His answer: “Slam dunk, what we’re doing today.’’
His main reasons: playing outdoors and selling less inventory of games. Auld added, “This idea has gotten me more excited than any other we’ve had so far.’’
In theory, the Rays could split their games elsewhere, maybe closer to the bay area, or at least in the same country, such as Nashville. But they picked Montreal for several reasons.
One is the history of and appetite for baseball there. Sternberg said they are confident they would draw well in the proposed downtown Montreal open-air stadium, adding that whether attendance would increase enough in Tampa Bay, where they are again near last in MLB averaging 14,500, “is more the question in my head.’’
Another is the weather, to balance out the comfortable springs and blazing and wet summers here. “We need a complement to Tampa Bay that’s going to work, and that’s up north, and that’s Montreal,’’ Sternberg said.
Does it matter of people come to games?
The Rays are trying to sell the plan by noting how following a team has changed, that through social media, streaming and watch parties, people can still be rabid fans without actually going to games, so in theory the location of the team doesn’t matter as much.
And they note how many of their current fans only attend a handful of games a year so they can still do that in a compressed schedule of home games.
“You can have those connections and maybe even enhance them even if the team isn’t physically located (there) for 81 home games each year,’’ Silverman said.
But Sternberg said attendance, the revenue from butts in the seats, remains “extraordinarily important” to a team’s success, that the Rays are currently 29th and “multitudes behind No. 3.’’
Also, for those who note viewership updates from Fox Sports Sun as a more important indicator, Sternberg said “our TV ratings aren’t that great.’’
Sternberg quotes to clip and save
• “I have no intention of selling this baseball team. I love being involved with baseball and all that I’m able to do within it.’’
• “We’re here (in St. Petersburg) through 2027 regardless. … We expect to stay till 2027. … This was an agreement that was done 20 some odd years ago, and we stick to the date, and that’s what it is.’’
• “I don’t see (a new full-time stadium) happening in St. Petersburg, and I would be hard-pressed to see it happen in Tampa as well, just given what I know.’’
• “If somebody says, 'Better no baseball than a big chunk of the season,” then there’s nothing I can really to say to them. I’d like to think that people aren’t feeling that way.’’
• “This isn’t us just leaning on Major League Baseball, like the bogeyman, ‘Mommy says I can’t sleep over’ kind of thing. They are large partners, they are large contributors to putting our team on the field every game, every year. They are going to weigh in, whether we like it or not.’’
• The Rays must be the obvious choice for the annual two-game spring exhibition series in Montreal vs. the Blue Jays, right?
• Group leader Stephen Bronfman talked about getting 41 games in Montreal, and the Rays have suggested 35 or so in Florida, depending how frontloaded their schedule is before early June. So maybe a six-game “road” swing back to Tampa Bay in September? Supposedly not in the plans.
• Interesting how many people who don’t like the plan suggest the Rays should just move to a new stadium in Tampa, as if the club didn’t just spend three years working with business leaders on that without getting close to success. … Or that Sternberg should sell to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who, though he has shown no interest in getting involved, would apparently wave his magic wand and build Rainbows & Unicorns stadium.
• Though it’s far down the to-do list, Sternberg said they’ve thought about a potential new team name honoring both markets: “If we can incorporate the Expos and incorporate the Rays somehow in an elegant, cute, interesting fashion then we’ll do it.’’
• Was there a benefit to the Rays bringing over dozens of employees to the Dalí Museum news conference beyond having people there to clap and cheer? Also, in giving the mic to St. Petersburg restaurateur Steve Westphal during the media Q&A to rave about what a “genius” idea it was and to thank Sternberg — actually “God bless you” — for everything he has brought to downtown?
• Email from a former Rays employee after the news conference: “Sternberg has finally made people wish that Vince (Naimoli) were the owner again!’’
• Another part of the Rays’ pitch? Building the two open-air stadiums for less than the reported $1.2 billion cost of the Rangers’ new retractable-roof stadium in Arlington.
• How complicated will approvals be? The players union and MLB are already disagreeing over whether needing to have two “homes” falls under rules of the National Labor Relations Act.
• On July 6, the Nationals for the first time will recognize their Canadian lineage by wearing 1969 Expos throwback uniforms (actually the powder-blue road kit); how would that work in the future if the Rays are playing in Montreal?
Charlie Morton being slated to start next Sunday doesn’t bode well for him pitching two days later for the AL All-Star team, to which he certainly deserves to be on. … Relievers have seemed the obvious priority for the Rays in trade talks, but from the looks lately, the Rays seem to need a bat, too. And maybe a starting pitcher. … Nationals scouts have been watching Triple-A Durham closely. The Nats do have Max Scherzer. … Brandon Lowe sure would be an interesting contestant in the All-Star Home Run Derby, though as of Friday night he hadn’t heard a word. … The Sept. 13-15 series in Anaheim is a long way off, but how interesting would it be to see two-way players Brendan McKay and Shohei Ohtani face off? And maybe the Rays could also have Jake Cronenwoth, who is opening and playing shortstop at Triple A. … Baseball America says the AL rookie of the year award “remains Lowe’s to lose.’’ … It’s trade-proposal season, so consider this: Is there any (healthy) player less likely to be traded in baseball than Rays prospect Wander Franco? … The Rays recognizing how tough a sell the upcoming Orioles games would be and offering $2 tickets was commendable. Not making a bigger deal of it with a formal press release seemed odd. No matter what they say, it certainly seemed like a make-good offer to fans upset about the Montreal plan. … Former Rays reliever Shawn Camp was hired as pitching coach at George Mason, his alma mater.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.