Did the Rays’ talks with Montreal violate the Tropicana Field lease?

St. Petersburg has long insisted that the Rays are locked into playing at the Trop until 2027. So how can the team consider playing in Montreal before then without violating the lease?
Did Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg’s talks with Montreal violate the lease agreement that requires the team to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season? [Times files]
Did Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg’s talks with Montreal violate the lease agreement that requires the team to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season? [Times files]
Published July 3
Updated July 4

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tropicana Field lease is clear: The Tampa Bay Rays cannot play home games anywhere else through 2027.

Not only that, it forbids the Rays from negotiating to play in any stadium other than the Trop before then, unless the team obtains permission from the city of St. Petersburg to explore other sites.

How, then, was principal owner Stu Sternberg able to talk with Montreal businessman Stephen Bronfman about the possibility of splitting the season between a Tampa Bay area stadium and a Canadian one?

It hinges on the definition of “negotiate,” and whether the two have been talking about starting that arrangement as soon as 2024 — that’s Sternberg target date — or if they’ve been talking about 2028 and beyond.

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Former Mayor Bill Foster, who was at odds with the Rays while at City Hall, thinks the team broke the rules.

“When Sternberg admitted ... it was a play to reduce home games in St. Pete now, or before 2028, it's 100 percent a violation," he said.

While the city and team disagree on the Montreal idea, they are in lockstep on this: Both say there was no violation. For now, that seems to be the only thing the two parties can agree upon.

• • •

The use agreement for the dome was adopted at a City Council meeting on April 27, 1995, weeks after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays expansion team was awarded to St. Petersburg. Three years later came the first pitch at the renamed Trop.

The 43-page agreement covers everything from executive suites to advertising, from capital improvements to naming rights. Section 11.01 is the part of the agreement that bounds the team to the ballpark. Entitled “exclusive dealings,” it stipulates that the team cannot “enter into, initiate or conduct any agreement or negotiations (directly or indirectly) for the use of any facility other than” the Trop for home games before the end of the contract.

That supposedly ironclad contract has been oft-cited over the years as the city’s leverage to keep the Rays from making a late-night dash — think of the Baltimore Colts heading for Indianapolis in 1984 — for another city through the 2027 season.

But it is not unprecedented for the city to let the team explore its options outside the Trop confines. In 2016 it granted the team a three-year window to look for a new stadium site around the bay area. That window closed Dec. 31, 2018, without plans in place for a new ballpark.

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When Sternberg first discussed the Montreal plan in public at a June 25 news conference at the Salvador Dalí Museum, he said he would like the first season of the Tampa Bay/Montreal team to start as early as 2024.

That would require the city to again suspend the exclusivity clause in the use agreement, which current Mayor Rick Kriseman initially vowed he would not do. He dismissed the plan as "silly" and ruled out spending taxpayer dollars to build a new stadium for a part-time team.

Sternberg matched Kriseman's chest thumping, saying if he has to wait until the term-limited Kriseman leaves office in 2022, he will. The impasse represents a return to the icy relations between the city and its team not seen since Foster occupied City Hall from 2010 to the end of 2013.

• • •

The year 2024 is why Foster thinks the team’s actions are problematic.

“That’s a clear violation,” he said. “Because in 2024, he’s committed to playing 81 home games at Tropicana Field.”

Foster is an attorney who works in commercial and real estate law. If he were still mayor, he said he’d send strongly-worded letters warning the Rays the team was violating the contract, and that the Montreal group was interfering with it.

The city has actually done that in the past, as in 2009 when a local civic group drafted a report identifying alternative stadium locations in the bay area.

City officials disagree with Foster, saying the team did not violate the Trop lease.

“The City Attorney’s office has been in contact with the general counsel for the Tampa Bay Rays and received assurances that the Rays will not commence exploration of the shared city concept, or conduct any other activities related to a pre-2028 future stadium site, without an agreement with the City of St. Petersburg,” city spokesman Ben Kirby said in a statement. “The Rays’ general counsel also confirmed that all conversations related to Montreal were limited to the time period after expiration of the use agreement.”

The Rays declined to comment for this story.

Former city attorney John Wolfe, who helped draft the use agreement and served under Foster, said whether the Rays violated the contract depends on how specific Sternberg’s conversations were with Bronfman.

Those conversations started two years ago, Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times. Bronfman first called him about relocating the team, then selling it. Sternberg said he rejected both ideas, but those talks led to the split-season concept.

“They’re not allowed to negotiate,” Wolfe said. “And they have their own definition of negotiate. They’re probably saying they haven’t negotiated anything yet.”

He added: “As far as I know, they’re not sitting down with anyone from Montreal and actually negotiating terms to play home games in Montreal during the term of the use agreement.”

Rather, he said, Sternberg just seems to be floating the idea to gauge reaction.

“If he wants to explore it in more detail, I’m sure he will come to the city and ask for permission to do that,” Wolfe said. “I’m sure Montreal knows what the agreement says, and if the Rays have assured us they’re not violating it, I would take their word for it.”

• • •

Foster doesn’t believe the split-season concept is a serious proposal. He has a theory that the Montreal idea and the Rays’ three-year search in Hillsborough and elsewhere in the bay area are part of the same legal strategy:

If the team breaks the Trop lease early and is sued by St. Petersburg, the Rays would try to prove to the courts that they did everything they could to remain viable in the Tampa Bay area.

“They’re preparing legal arguments,” Foster said. “Or should I say, they’re manufacturing evidence.”

Sternberg, though, has said that the split-season concept is the only way to keep baseball in Tampa Bay. The team also told the Times that its talks with Montreal did not violate the lease.

“There’s terminology in the use agreement about negotiations and putting things on paper and we’ve done none of those things,” Rays President Brian Auld said last week.

“The reason that we’re having this discussion today, that we’re talking about this, and that we appreciate that we need to go through the city to move this forward, is precisely to avoid violating the use agreement.”

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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