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Tampa Bay is rid of the in-laws in Montreal, but has a stadium mess at home

John Romano | MLB’s rejection of the Rays’ sister city plan will be good news to most fans, but it comes with a sobering caveat.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has been looking for an alternative site for Tropicana Field for more than a dozen years. Now that the sister city plan with Montreal is dead, the Rays can once again focus on Tampa Bay sites. Or somewhere else.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has been looking for an alternative site for Tropicana Field for more than a dozen years. Now that the sister city plan with Montreal is dead, the Rays can once again focus on Tampa Bay sites. Or somewhere else. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2019) ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 21

ST. PETERSBURG — This is a great day for baseball fans in Tampa Bay. Presumably. Well, possibly. Okay, hopefully.

Major League Baseball’s stunning rejection of the sister city plan is a godsend for fans who abhorred the idea of sharing the Rays with Montreal, and it is complete vindication for everyone who insisted the concept resided somewhere between sinister and ridiculous.

Now that the plan has been obliterated, there will be no dual stadiums. No summer farewells. No French broadcasts. No alternating postseason sites.

Also, it should be said, no place for Wander Franco to hang his hat in 2028.

That should be an exhilarating, yet sobering, thought. Tampa Bay has been cut loose from the burning plane, but we’re still in desperate need of a parachute. A very, very expensive parachute.

While the marketplace is forever rid of an unpopular plan, it is now left with no plan at all. That could be a necessary first step toward something wonderful, but it comes with risks, too.

That’s what happens when a crucial plot line is overlooked. The opposition to the Montreal idea fixated on the perception of Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg as some comic book villain. If it weren’t for Sternberg — the story goes — then we’d all be happily singing during future seventh-inning stretches.

Except, that’s not true. This market still has a serious attendance problem. Which means we have a stadium problem. Which means we have a money problem.

Katie Platt holds up a sign protesting the Rays proposal to split the season between St. Petersburg and Montreal during this past season's ALDS game against the Red Sox.
Katie Platt holds up a sign protesting the Rays proposal to split the season between St. Petersburg and Montreal during this past season's ALDS game against the Red Sox. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And deep-sixing the sister city plan does not change that reality. It’s not like you can adjust the Ybor City proposal from a part-time stadium to a full-time stadium as if you were adding a deck to the house. There is a reason the Ybor City idea was touted as a $700 million project. It would have been the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball. It would have had no upper deck. It would have had no roof.

Which means if the Rays can be convinced to remain in Tampa Bay full time — and they’ve spent the past two years insisting that was not economically viable — they would need a bigger stadium to make up for the lost revenues from the Montreal deal. And they would also need a roof because heat and summer thunderstorms would turn into an attendance nightmare.

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So then a $700 million stadium would be looking more like a $1.2 billion stadium. Even if the Rays agreed to pay half the cost of a more expensive facility (and I doubt they would) the public bill would be $600 million.

Go ahead, ask Tampa Mayor Jane Castor how feasible that sounds.

Look, I’m not trying to be combative. Just pragmatic.

The reason the Rays came up with the Montreal proposal was because they had already failed to generate enough interest and/or investments to build a stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront in 2008 or a fixed-roof stadium in Ybor City in 2018. The sister city plan was a wacky idea meant to reduce stadium costs in Tampa Bay by sharing the expense with Montreal.

Now that plan is kaput.

This is not the fault of local politicians. Nor is it the fault of Rays fans. It is borne of the economic gap between Tampa Bay and most MLB markets.

During his countless community talks in support of the Montreal plan the past two years, Rays president Brian Auld invariably would point out that the Atlanta Braves got more sponsorship money from just three corporations — Truist Bank, Delta and Coca Cola — than the Rays got from every business in Tampa Bay.

That’s a problem. It’s a problem for Tampa Bay fans who are expected to pick up the slack at the box office for the area’s lack of major corporations. And it’s a problem for MLB owners who say they are tired of subsidizing the Rays through the league’s revenue sharing plan.

Fan and corporate support for the Rays have been issues in Tampa Bay.
Fan and corporate support for the Rays have been issues in Tampa Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Mostly, it’s a problem for the Rays who conceivably could get more corporate support in a city such as Nashville when their lease at Tropicana Field ends after the 2027 season.

For now, the Rays say those thoughts are not on their radar. They say they remain committed to Tampa Bay and will have to start from scratch when it comes to a stadium solution.

The idea that MLB killed the Montreal plan is a good indication that this was not a scam, nor a leverage ploy by the Rays. If it was a hustle, MLB would have gladly continued the ruse on behalf of the team.

Instead, Rays executives were stunned and dismayed when they got word late last week that baseball’s executive council was leaning toward rejecting the plan. When commissioner Rob Manfred called Sternberg on Tuesday to confirm the vote without offering much in the way of an explanation, it officially closed the door on more than two years and millions of dollars in planning.

So, congratulations Rays fans. Feel free to celebrate the demise of a largely unpopular plan. On this day, in 2022, Tampa Bay was given the gift of a full Major League Baseball season once again.

Just understand, after the hallelujahs and hollering, there is still much to be done. And not much time left to do it.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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