ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays aren’t going anywhere until at least 2028.
Mayor Rick Kriseman on Wednesday announced he will not allow the Tampa Bay Rays to split their season between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal while the lease of Tropicana Field is in effect.
Instead, he said both the city and team will abide by the contract that locks the team into the Trop through the 2027 season.
“Both parties have agreed that the best path forward is to abide by the existing use agreement,” Kriseman wrote in a Wednesday memo sent to City Council. “In accordance with the existing use agreement, should the Rays Organization wish to continue exploration of the shared season concept with Montreal, that exploration must be limited to the 2028 season and beyond.”
But come 2028, the Rays would be free to move wherever the team wishes — and St. Petersburg won’t be able to stop the team, or claim any compensation.
The mayor’s declaration is the latest setback in the Rays’ decade-long quest to secure a new stadium, leaving the future of Major League Baseball in the bay area as muddled as it has ever been.
Now that negotiations are off the table, the clock continues to tick toward the end of the 2027 season. That is the last year through which the Rays are contractually obligated to play all its home games in Tropicana Field. When the Trop contract ends, the team will be freed from the now 30-year-old dome and become a free agent franchise.
Sternberg said he disagrees with the mayor that ending the Montreal talks is the best option. He reiterated his faith in the split-season idea as the best way to keep baseball in Tampa Bay.
“We agree generally with Mayor Kriseman’s characterization of our months of conversations,” Sternberg said in a statement, but added: "We do not agree that this is the best path forward.
“We recognize that we must now consider our post-2027 options and all that entails and we remain steadfast in our belief that the sister city concept is deserving of serious consideration."
The day before the mayor’s announcement Rays president Brian Auld told the Tampa Bay Times that the team promised not to break the lease if the 2024 split-season talks fall apart. But team officials also believe that ending talks now is a mistake.
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“It remains clear to us, and we continue to believe that it’s also true for the city, that the worst of possible outcomes here is for the team to be compelled to stay here through the end of the 2027 season," Auld said, “and forced to pursue other options in a noncooperative engagement with the city of St. Petersburg.”
The mayor said he wrote his memo in response to pressure from City Council members for an update on the split-season negotiations. Talks between team and city officials commenced after Rays leaders announced the split-season concept this past summer. The Rays believe expanding the team’s brand across two markets and playing baseball in two new, outdoor stadiums during the nicest parts of the year in each location — the spring in Tampa Bay and the summer in Montreal — would solve the team’s attendance and financial woes.
Tampa Bay had the second-worst attendance of any Major League Baseball team in 2019, despite an exciting American League wild card race and reaching the postseason for the first time in six seasons. Only the National League-worst Miami Marlins drew fewer fans.
The Rays wanted the Montreal plan to be in place by the 2024 season. But the Trop contract forbids the team from even negotiating to play elsewhere before it expires. That meant the Rays needed St. Petersburg’s approval.
In his memo, Kriseman told the team he will not grant that request.
“We are not a part-time city, we are not a part-time region,” Kriseman told the Times. "We are a Major League city and region and that’s what we deserve.”
The mayor wrote in the memo that he had offered the team the chance to look elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area for a full-time stadium location, which the city did in 2016 to allow it to pursue a Hillsborough County site. But the team turned that offer down, he said.
Neither Kriseman nor team officials would say if the Rays offered the city anything in exchange for permission to explore the Montreal arrangement.
As recently as Tuesday afternoon, the Rays still spoke of putting the Montreal plan in place as soon as 2024 or 2025, saying the games-sharing plan was their “sole focus” and they were “full force … going after it.”
Team presidents Auld and Matt Silverman spoke for more than an hour with three Times reporters and reiterated that the Rays view that plan as the best way to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay — and the only way.
“We don’t like to say never, but I think as (Sternberg) said on the day of the (June 25 Montreal) announcement at the Dali museum, it’s highly unlikely that a full season baseball team in Tampa Bay is going to be here in 2028,” Auld said.
Further, Rays officials said Tuesday that if they didn’t get Kriseman’s blessing by the end of 2020 to pursue the Montreal plan, then they would start looking for a new home to play elsewhere for the 2028 season and beyond.
"We don’t want to think about that but it is a necessity for us to have a place to play in 2028,’’ Silverman said. “So the clock is ticking. And we have a limited time to pursue this shared season concept before we have to turn attention to the many cities that have knocked on our door or will knock on our door who want baseball in their communities.''
That list could include Orlando, Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Portland, Vancouver and, of course, Montreal.
Auld promised that the Rays would not violate the Trop lease by vacating the stadium early.
The mayor also said the city will move forward with developing at least part of the 86-acre Tropicana Field parcel, leaving open the possibility of adding a new stadium down the road. Silverman, though, said he thinks it’s important to know the future of the baseball team before the site starts being redeveloped.
“I imagine the character of that development would be very different based on whether the team is here or not,” he said.
Kriseman also reaffirmed St. Petersburg’s commitment to contribute public dollars should the team wish to build a full-time stadium in St. Petersburg. But the city will not help pay to build a stadium for a part-time team, the mayor said.
The Rays’ potential partners in Montreal are a group lead by Canadian businessman Stephen Bronfman. He issued this statement Wednesday on behalf of the group:
“We remain steadfastly committed to the sister city concept with the Tampa Bay Rays and its realization in as timely a fashion as possible. Our group continues to be excited by the proposed innovative concept. We will have no further comment at this time.”