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A way to keep the Rays here full time? Maybe a dramatic attendance boost

On the day he unveiled some novel ticket plans, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said he never says never. “I’m asking people to be open-minded about things, and I’m open to anything,”
Tampa Bay Rays fans welcome players during introductions just prior the Rays game against the Houston Astros for Game 3 of the American League Division Series Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

PORT CHARLOTTE — Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Wednesday the Rays remain fully committed to their radical plan to split future seasons with Montreal starting in 2028. That they feel they are making progress toward the necessary approvals. And are convinced they are on the front end of a coming trend in pro sports.

But Sternberg also at least provided a peek through the crack in the door that could lead to a path — even though he admitted he doesn’t see it happening — for the team to reconsider staying in the Tampa Bay full time:

A massive increase in attendance this season.

“I never say never. I’m asking people to be open-minded about things, and I’m open to anything,’’ he told the Tampa Bay Times at spring training camp.

“We won 96 games last year. If things blow through this year and we sell a ton more tickets — a ton — and get up heading toward league average and we open up the (upper) decks and sponsors come on and we do that again next year, I’d be silly not to consider it. I’m open-minded about it, but something has to bear out.’’

Related: Rays ticket plan: $99 for four games, come back for free if they keep winning

Given that the Rays would need to nearly double their attendance from last season — an average of 14,734 that ranked 29th in the 30-team league, and 1,178,735 overall — to get to the league average of 28,198 per game, that would seem rather unlikely. But Sternberg saying so as the Rays announced ticket plans this week could at least boost sales.

On a daily basis, the Rays remain focused on the Montreal plan, which is on something of a fast track for agreements and calls for new open-air stadiums to be built in both markets for a rough cost of $600 million each.

Sternberg also said Wednesday the team would contribute to the cost of the new Tampa Bay stadium.

“Oh yeah, of course,’’ he said. “I’d love to have it built (without a team contribution), but I don’t anticipate that at all."

He, naturally, wouldn’t say how much they would contribute.

A substantial amount?

“For me, it would be substantial,’’ he said, noting this option is “cheaper” than a full-time stadium with a roof. “So it’s more affordable for me, it’s more affordable for the municipality.’’

The Rays met Feb. 10 with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan to discuss building a new stadium in Tampa for the shared plan, and all sides came away optimistic.

Sternberg said Wednesday they are talking only to Tampa as of now, given that St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he isn’t interested though acknowledged that could change. The Rays’ contract at Tropicana Field runs out after the 2027 season.

“The truth is everywhere in North America is a possibility, but I'm only looking at Tampa Bay and Montreal right now,’’ Sternberg said.

Since revealing what they call the “sister city” plan in June, Sternberg said they have made progress convincing Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, other team owners (who would have to vote to approve it) and Tampa Bay area business of the merits.

Fans, however, remain skeptical, which Sternberg said he understands.

“I totally get it,'' he said. "And until we get this done, and when we get this done, as I would anticipate, people will look back and say how, why was this not done years before. I firmly believe that going forward this is going to be a model for all of pro sports.''

The Rays also will have to get approval from the players union to get the Montreal plan in place, which some consider their biggest challenge (perhaps after getting two new stadiums built for roughly 40 games each) but Sternberg believes they can make a good case.

Part of that will be detailing what they will do, financially and logistically, to ease the burden of the players having to move during the season and relocate for three or four months.

The other will be pushing how their projections for increased attendance and overall revenues (such as having multiple TV and radio contracts) will lead to an increase in payroll.

“We’re going to be able to spend more money for players,’’ he said. “An average player on our team makes, call it a couple million dollars a year, and that’s going to go up a good amount if we get this done. That’s the idea. So I think the players will recognize that and maybe even it becomes a great thing for players to do this.’’

Sternberg also reiterated that the reason to pursue the Montreal plan is to keep a team in the Tampa Bay area on at least a part-time basis rather than abandon the market and relocate elsewhere, assuming they got permission to do so.

“The main thing is to try and keep baseball in a place where it’s been for a long period of time,’’ he said. “People would say it’s failed here. It certainly hasn’t lived up to reasonable enough expectations.

“But I'm a little pig-headed and I want to try to keep it here. We’ve got a lot of great fans who’ve come to us and we want to keep baseball here for them.’’

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

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