Why did the Rays’ Montreal plan get rejected?

Was it a matter of the MLB not wanting to be first with a team splitting sites? Or something more complicated?
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred initially seemed in favor of the Rays' split-season plan with Montreal.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred initially seemed in favor of the Rays' split-season plan with Montreal. [ LM OTERO | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 21, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — About the only thing Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg could think Thursday was that Major League Baseball didn’t want to be the first league having a team split its home games between two markets.

Otherwise, he had no good guesses — and was not given any specific reasons — why the eight-owner executive council killed their innovative plan to spend the first half of the season in the Tampa Bay area and the second in Montreal.

“I have no doubt that what we try to accomplish with our sister-city plan will become accepted in all major leagues and professional sports,” Sternberg said. “Major League Baseball simply isn’t prepared to cross that threshold right now.”

Stephen Bronfman, leader of the Montreal group, had a similar take, with a twist.

Related: In Montreal, frustration and concern for the Rays’ future

Bronfman suggested that other owners may initially have thought the plan was just a negotiating ploy for a new full-time Tampa Bay stadium. But once they realized the Rays were committed to it and did due diligence, decided the details were too complex to be addressed now.

“When I think they started to see that it was really serious,” Bronfman said, “I think they took a step back and they said, ‘Wow, this is a really outward-thinking project. We understand it. But I don’t know if we want to be the first league or guys out there to start something like this.’ ”

MLB officials declined to comment Thursday; that’s not surprising as they likely didn’t want to get into a back and forth with Sternberg. But it allowed for plenty of speculation and discussion about their potential reasons, such as:

Attendance may not always be the best at the Trop, but the TV market is strong in Tampa Bay.
Attendance may not always be the best at the Trop, but the TV market is strong in Tampa Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Market. Though the Rays have struggled with attendance, MLB likely doesn’t want to reduce its grip on a major TV market in a growing metro area such as Tampa Bay.

Leverage. In granting the Rays permission in June 2019 to explore the idea, MLB owners and officials may have felt, as Bronfman suggested, they were doing the team enough of a favor with the chance to put pressure on Tampa Bay officials to get a new stadium and were not actually in favor of the Rays splitting their season. In that scenario, even commissioner Rob Manfred’s February 2020 comments that he was “100 percent convinced” and that owners also felt it was the “best way to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay” could be taken in a different light.

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

Details. The Rays were well aware the plan would be complicated to execute, starting with trying to get stadiums built in two countries at the same time. There would be more once they got going, such as how they would need to have territorial and TV/radio market rights to two areas. Among other questions were what impact the plan would have on the team’s current TV and radio deals, scheduling/travel and player compensation.

Labor pains. Though not a major issue in the current negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, the plan was discussed by both sides. And at some point the Rays were going to have to get approval from the players union, likely involving financial compensation to players for a number of the logistical issues.

Related: The long and winding road to Tampa Bay’s elusive Rays stadium

Jealousy. Part of the Rays’ reason for wanting to split their schedule was the opportunity for a massive increase in revenue, which they said would allow them to boost spending on payroll. But other owners, already tired of the Rays repeatedly beating them on the field, may not have been keen on a plan that improved their opportunity to be even more competitive, even if it reduced their take of revenue sharing.

Uncertainty. It’s hard enough, as the Rays have shown, to address attendance issues in one market. Though Sternberg and Bronfman were uber confident the plan would work, there could have been a major issue if it didn’t, leading to the double trouble of trying to get out of two 30-year leases.

Related: Tampa Bay leaders react to news that MLB has dashed Rays’ sister-city dream

With an owners meeting scheduled for Feb. 8-10 in Orlando, Sternberg will come face to face with the owners who foiled the plan he so badly wanted approved.

The committee includes owners (or representatives) Mark Attanasio, Brewers; Jon Henry, Red Sox; Christopher Ilitch, Tigers; John Middleton, Phillies; Dick Monfort, Rockies; Jerry Reinsdorf, White Sox; John Sherman, Royals; Mark Walter, Dodgers.

“I don’t know how he can do it,” Bronfman said.

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