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Rays’ Stuart Sternberg: Aim is Montreal split plan for 2028

Principal owner says staying full time in Tampa Bay remains unlikely, so the focus remains on sharing games with Montreal.

SAN DIEGO — Splitting future seasons in Montreal remains the most likely — and probably only — way to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay area, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday, calling the chance to instead stay in a new full-time home even less than the previously phrased “highly unlikely.”

Despite their timetable for sharing games being pushed back to 2028 with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s “disappointing” but unsurprising refusal to allow a move before the end of their Tropicana Field use agreement, Sternberg said the Rays will continue to push hard for the Montreal plan.

“Something we would have liked to have happen in 2024-25 will happen in 2028,” he said.

Their work, primarily on determining the viability of a plan that calls for new open-air stadiums to be built in both markets, will be aggressive. That’s because he said they need to know in the next 12 months or so whether it will work as well as they expect. And, either way, to know by 2022, or 2023 at the latest, where they will be playing in 2028.

If the sharing plan can’t be worked out, Sternberg said he would either then start looking for a new home elsewhere or, more likely, sell the team to someone who would move it.

Related: Agent Scott Boras: Rays not a fit in Tampa Bay

But staying full time in the Tampa Bay area, in Pinellas or Hillsborough, remains the least likely solution given their failed previous attempts.

“I’m open to any conversation,” Sternberg said. “They’d have to show me why it would work. We did work previously, we spent years on it. Some of the really solid business leaders, earnestly, and in a caring fashion, tried to make it work. But if there’s a genie in a bottle somewhere that wants to show me why it would work — I just can’t envision it. You never say never, but I can’t envision it. It’s less than highly unlikely.”

And if they were to consider it, he said a Hillsborough site would “no doubt” be the choice over St. Petersburg, but Hillsborough options “don’t seem to be viable enough” either. “It doesn’t get over the bar for full season,” he said. “Is it more (attractive) than St. Pete? Yes, because St. Pete is not happening.”

Among other things in an interview with Tampa Bay media and then a talk just with the Tampa Bay Times at baseball’s winter meetings, Sternberg also said:

• They are not looking to break their lease at the Trop to leave before the end of the 2027 season. “It could come to that but that’s not the way I’m approaching it,” he said. A potential reason they might, he said, was if they had the sharing plan in place and agreed with the mayor who replaces Kriseman that it made sense to move the date up. “There will always be a discussion but I’m not putting that into the equation,” he said.

• If the sharing plan doesn’t prove viable, Sternberg said he would not look to move the team to Montreal full time since he didn’t think that would work. But he left open the possibility to be convinced if the group there, led by Steven Bronfman, found corporate support “far in excess of what I anticipated they could prove themselves” to be a permanent home. “Right now I think there are better full-time markets than Montreal,” he said.

Related: Now there’s even more questions about the Rays’ future. We have some answers

• He has not “even scratched the surface” on details elsewhere, though markets such as Las Vegas, Nashville, Portland, Charlotte and Orlando have made public pushes. “There’s no secret that multiple people have reached out to me and others multiple times over multiple periods to move this team to their city and I haven’t had these conversations,” he said. “I’m not looking to do it. It’s not necessary for me to do it. That’s probably most important. And I’m not desirous of doing it.

“Their selling point is that you’re much better off, and they’re probably right. But I haven’t explored it. I haven’t thought about it. And even if we are better off, I’ve committed to myself and, and will maintain it, I’m going to do everything I can to keep baseball here for generations.”

Later, he said that was the reason he has persisted in looking for a Tampa Bay solution, even if it is part-time:

“There is one thread, and this is the thread: It’s my commitment to myself to get something done to ensure that MLB baseball is being played in Tampa Bay in 2050, and a team that can be relatively successful.”

• He has no interest in selling the team — and, before you ask, said he has had no conversations with Lightning owner Jeff Vinik about the team — but would consider doing so if relocating to another market was the only option.

“If the team had to move, I could see selling it and having it move before I had to move it myself,” he said. “I haven’t gone down this road enough in my head. I wouldn’t say definitely, but if this team for whatever reason had to eventually move I would envision somebody else doing it and not me.”

• The Montreal sharing plan, with a stadium in either Pinellas or Hillsborough, gives them “the opportunity to be relatively successful.” He said they project averaging 25,000 fans a game in each market. Of note, however, Sternberg said the initial numbers from the Montreal group look promising. "I’m more concerned about the viability in Tampa Bay than I am in Montreal,'' he said. "I could be proven wrong. But we’ve tried a couple of times in Tampa Bay. And the indications already I’m getting from Montreal are dramatically north of what we’ve seen in Tampa Bay. Maybe that’s because they don’t have a team and they want one, but whatever the catalyst, that’s where we are.''

He also referred to the plan to build a stadium in Ybor City that ended rather unsuccessfully last December due to what the team said was a lack of corporate support.

"Had the sponsorship numbers and had the support been, I won’t say overwhelming, but very whelming, very robust, our contributions — which is why I never pinned a number down — could ... have been dramatically more. But there was nothing really robust that was coming out as far as support over there, which didn’t give us the confidence to say, "Oh yeah, I could just go pay $550 (million) $600 million for a stadium.''

• The “cleanest” way to implement the sharing plan would be to build the new outdoor stadium in St. Petersburg, which could allow them to play a few additional (partial) seasons at the Trop while the new facility is built, and thus allowing them to first get the Montreal stadium built and the operation in place, then focus on the new Tampa Bay site.

Related: Rick Kriseman kills Rays’ plan to split season in Montreal. Now what?

“I have a sense there’d be better funding on the Pinellas side, there’s money set aside for it,” he said, but also noted that Kriseman said he won’t allow any public money to be used on a stadium for part-time use, and that he is in office through end of 2021.

Sternberg also noted that the Montreal group is further ahead in planning specifics, such as preferred stadium sites.

• Specifics of the plans, such as how the two new stadiums, at an estimated $500 million to $600 million, would be funded, are a big part of the work to be done during the coming year to determine viability of the plan.

“I don’t even know what it would look like,” Sternberg said. “I couldn’t tell you. If I had to pay for entire stadiums in both places, it can’t work, right? If I didn’t have to pay for a stadium in either place, it would work incredibly. So somewhere n between is that. I have a sense of what I think the corporate support would look like in the Tampa Bay area. I’m not being Pollyanna-ic that it’s going to turn into something incredible. There’s a range, right? ... It’s not going to move the needle. I have to live with the understanding that staying in Tampa Bay and relying on corporate support and season-ticket sales ain’t going to get the job done. But I’ve committed to myself to do everything I can to try to make it happen. And in a way, we’re using Montreal to keep baseball in Tampa Bay.”

• Though Kriseman’s decision was “disappointing” to Sternberg and the Montreal group, he remains excited about the plan — more and more every day — and is confident skeptics will eventually see the “brilliance” in it, adding that is certain other teams in all sports will be doing so in the future.

Though acknowledging the the players union will need to be convinced to grant what seems to many observers unlikely approval, and that details and accommodations such as stipends and arranged housing in Montreal need to be worked out, he is steadfast the plan is a good one, and others will eventually see it that way.

“This isn’t the first, second, third or fourth time the geniuses in baseball have been a little skeptical of stuff we’ve thought of or stuff we’re doing,” he said.

* Deciding where playoff games would be held is under the fun problems to have, and while the Rays initially suggested the sites would be alternated by yearly appearances, Sternberg said a more “equitable” plan might be to switch each series. So in theory the Rays could play the opening round in Montreal and then the next round in Tampa Bay.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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