MLB kills Rays’ split-city plan with Montreal

Team officials say they have no immediate plans to explore relocation to another market, and Stuart Sternberg has no plans to sell the team.
Fans have been vocal since the start about the possibility of a part-time major-league team in Tampa Bay.
Fans have been vocal since the start about the possibility of a part-time major-league team in Tampa Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 20, 2022|Updated Jan. 21, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays’ proposed plan to split seasons in Montreal has been killed by Major League Baseball officials, creating even more uncertainty about the team’s long-term future in Tampa Bay.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred informed Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg on Tuesday that the league’s executive council rejected the innovative and controversial plan. The decision stunned team officials, who had worked 2 ½ years since getting initial approval to explore the project, anticipating league approval to proceed with the tougher challenges in getting open-air stadiums built in both markets. The Rays also would have had to get approval from the players union, which likely would have included financial compensation.

“We put everything we had into this effort because we truly believed in it — we thought it was great for the Rays, for our players, for Major League Baseball, for Montreal and Tampa Bay,” team president Brian Auld told the Tampa Bay Times. “And to have the rug pulled out from under us like this is extraordinarily disappointing.”

Team officials said Thursday that they now will reluctantly head down a path they have explored — and dismissed — previously: seeking a new full-time home in the Tampa Bay area.

And they don’t have much time to do so. The lease agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season and plans to build a new stadium would likely need to be in place by 2023 to be ready for opening day 2028.

The Rays said they have no immediate plans to ask permission from MLB to explore relocation to another market, nor does Sternberg, who took over in 2005, have any intention to sell the team.

Sternberg said they would take some time to regroup, then decide how to proceed, noting he would “look at the stands” to see if attendance picks up this season and that they were likely to consider many options throughout the Tampa Bay area.

They had been in talks with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and others about building an open-air stadium on a site in Ybor City, agreeing to pay half of the proposed $700 million cost.

“We’re going to be exploring things in the Tampa Bay region,” Sternberg said. “I’ve said since I’ve owned the team for 17 years that our goal has been to keep it here for generations and generations.”

As the Montreal plan took shape, Rays officials said it was their “only” option and dismissed any chance of getting a new full-time home in the Tampa Bay area. The team strongly hinted that if a split season plan didn’t happen, leaving Tampa Bay would be a more likely scenario than remaining here full time.

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Now — to the joy of those who disparaged the split city plan, some saying they would rather have no team than to share one — the Rays will again look at options around Tampa Bay.

The Rays’ lease agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season.
The Rays’ lease agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

They tried twice previously. In 2008, the team explored a waterfront stadium with a sail-like cover in downtown St. Petersburg. And in 2018, they considered a fixed-roof stadium in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. Now the teams says it welcomes new ideas in those or other locations.

What will be different this time?

Sternberg said he would like to think the progress they made on the open-air stadium is a good sign, and that the ticking of the clock toward 2027 gets area leaders to see the urgency of resolving the situation and that there will be more overall support — including financially — for a new stadium now.

“The most important thing, it was and still remains, the support we see from sponsors, from organizations, from companies, from groups and from attendance,” Sternberg said. “That still is what drives it all. If that is there, building a stadium becomes a ... much easier proposition.”

But building a full-time stadium is more complicated, as it will require some type of roof and a larger footprint, and likely cost in excess of $1 billion. Sites throughout the area — in St. Petersburg, in Tampa, near the Hard Rock casino and others — likely will be reconsidered.

Sternberg said they also may change some of their parameters this time, such as “having to give a little bit” on having the “pinpoint location” they previously sought.

Those options are likely to include the Tropicana Field site, though that would be complicated by a redevelopment plan that had been proposed and approved by former Mayor Rick Kriseman. The plan does not currently include a stadium but could be modified to add one.

Now the Rays have to decide next steps.

“Our track record shows that we will look at anything and everything in our efforts to keep the team here,” said Matt Silverman, another team president. “Nothing is on the table and everything is on the table at the same time. And together we get to forge the future of baseball in this community.”

Threatening to leave the market could be another way to spur action, one that a number of teams in baseball and other sports have used. (And, indirectly, it is how this market landed the Rays expansion team after being used as a potential relocation site by a number of other teams.)

Sternberg said he is reluctant to do so.

“It’s probably not served me incredibly well, but I have never threatened to move the team out of the region,” he said. “Now that seems to be 101 in the playbook of getting stadiums and arenas built. I don’t criticize it, it just hasn’t been my way. ... I think introducing that to an area is just not necessarily practical, and it’s not necessarily fair to your fan base.”

The Rays came up with the split-season plan a few months after ending talks with Tampa area officials in December 2018. In the absence of a workable financial plan for the fixed-roof stadium, they saw it as a creative and trend-setting solution to split games between two sites. They created a partnership with Montreal business leader Stephen Bronfman to work that side of the deal, and invested considerable time, research and money in the project.

Bronfman said in a media Zoom interview Thursday that his group also was gravely disappointed with the decision, having seen the plan as a chance to get back in the game after the Expos left following the 2004 season for Washington.

Sternberg and Bronfman both said they had not been given a clear answer on why the plan was rejected by the eight-member executive council, speculating that other owners were reluctant to embrace an untried concept.

MLB officials declined comment, but certainly the complexity of the plan — which impacts players, radio and television contracts, territorial rights and other issues — was a factor.

The Rays also thought they had the support of Manfred, who told the Times in February 2020 he was “100 percent convinced and, more importantly, the other owners have been convinced by (Sternberg), that this is best way to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.”

ays principal owner Stuart Sternberg says he has no plans to sell the team.
ays principal owner Stuart Sternberg says he has no plans to sell the team. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Despite winning consistently over the last 15 years, the Rays have been at or near the bottom in attendance and, as a result, in revenues and spending on payroll.

They saw the Montreal plan as a solution to those issues. It would provide the opportunity to take advantage of prime weather at different times of year and play baseball all season in open-air stadiums that were less expensive to build. The team assumed they could increase revenues and player payroll, since the greater demand for tickets would lead to increased attendance and sponsorships. They also would have benefited from multiple TV and radio deals.

Though final details remained to be worked out, the basics of the plan were for the Rays to play their spring training games and the first two months of the season at the Tampa Bay stadium, then move in early June to Montreal. There was some talk of making an early-season visit to Montreal and playing a late-season series or two in Tampa Bay. Postseason games were to be alternated between the host cities on an annual basis.

Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow, the team’s union rep, said players didn’t talk much about the plan, but “it would have been tough” for them to be on board given the logistical issues. “They can now try to figure out a stadium in Tampa, try to build a future here in Tampa as opposed to leaving,” he said. “I think it’s a huge win for the Tampa-St. Pete fans in general.”

As frustrated as Rays officials were, they said they will soon get back to work on finding another option.

“We’re absolutely committed to figuring it out,” Auld said. “If there’s one thing the Rays have been pretty good at over the years, it’s accomplishing things that people think we can’t do. So we’re going to bring every ounce of innovation and creativity and analysis we’ve got to solving this problem. I think we just did that in coming up with the sister-city plan and while that’s no longer an option to us, we’ll use those resources and everything the organization’s got to keep the team here.”

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