Are the Rays on the move?

In 2018 I summarised the plans for a dreamy new stadium in Tampa Bay that was supposed to be the glittering home of the Rays for decades to come.

The dream ended and we’ve woken up to a very different prospect indeed.  You’ve probably picked up on bits of what’s been going on including moves north of the border, fights with the local government and some of baseball’s movers and shakers wading in. Unless you’ve been following along intently, parts of the growingly nuanced situation may still have escaped your attention (it’s the Rays after all).  If you’ve not fully kept up with it, below is a handy summary of the goings-on.

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The stadium deal collapse

The pretty pictures of a jewel-like stadium located in Tampa’s Ybor City area remained pretty pictures only.  The plan was to pay for the stadium with a mix of ownership money, ring-fenced infrastructure development taxes and investments or commitments to tickets from local business.  What appeared to be the most notable shortfall was a lack of support from companies in the region and an unwillingness for ownership to make up the difference.  By the end of 2018 the deal was dead and the team announced that they wouldn’t continue to pursue looking for sites in the Tampa Bay area.

The face value take is that the team didn’t get the support they wanted from an affluent, business rich area of the country and took a business decision to stop throwing good money after bad attempting to further a doomed project.

The alternative and perhaps somewhat shady view is that Stuart Sternberg (the Rays’ principal owner) never intended to get the deal through and merely put on a show to advance his wider plans of more distant relocation.

The ‘Sister City’ idea

With the Ybor City relocation plan in tatters the Rays’ ownership very quickly announced another plan.  This is the bit that’s got the headlines.  Sternberg believes that the Rays can’t sustain a team for a full season in the Tampa Bay area, so, half of the season should be played elsewhere, namely Montreal.
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By splitting the season between the two cities, Sternberg’s team would reap a number of benefits.  Firstly they’d get the best of the weather.  Montreal is too cold and wet for outside baseball in March, April and some of May.  Tampa Bay is too hot for outside baseball in June, July and August and has nightly thunderstorms.  Given that putting a roof on a stadium is extremely expensive, the split season idea allows the team to have open air stadiums in each location with appropriate climates.

Secondly, they’ll be selling 40 games a season to challenging markets rather than the traditional 80.  Whilst it’s not as simple as dividing the total number of tickets sold by half the number of games, they’ll be banking on a significant increase in the average attendance.

Finally (and probably most importantly) ownership will benefit from two major television markets.  Not only will they have two potential audiences, they’ll also have additional leverage in negotiations as each market will have extra reliance on coverage of the team which will be ‘out of town’ for three quarters of the season.

The public backlash

To say that the initial response to the plan was negative is an understatement.  The backlash from Tampa Bay residents was inevitable, as was the displeasure of the local government.

The reaction from the people of Montreal was mixed.  Some were happy at the prospect of Major League Baseball returning to their city. However, there seemed to be a larger group of the opinion that having the Rays (or whatever they end up being called) in town for half of the season would harm their chance of getting a full time team when expansion finally comes around.

The reaction on Twitter suggested that fans of other teams tended to harbour feelings that were a mix of amusement and derision.   People would say things like, ‘The league will never let it happen’, ‘The Rays are just playing for leverage’ and ‘It’s just to get some headlines’

The political manoeuvring

Despite the negative reaction and the general belittling of the sister city idea, Sternberg wouldn’t let it drop.  Midway through 2019 people started to really sit up and notice when MLB gave its approval to officially explore the idea further and Rob Manfred weighed in a couple of times in support.

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By the end of the year, whilst the extreme nay-sayers were still maintaining that ‘there’s no way this can happen’, others were starting to consider wider practicalities:

Where would postseason games be played? 

Postseason games would be either be split by series or by post season…perhaps…or maybe Montreal weather in October wouldn’t be suitable so post seasons can stay put…possibly.  It would appear that nobody is really sure.

What is the situation with stadia in each city? 

Each city would build a new stadium both saving on costs by not having a roof.  They would be paid for by…ummm…well, that’s something that nobody’s really sure about either.

What would the players think? 

Whilst people on the Rays payroll were predictably diplomatic and non-committal with their opinions, former Rays favourite Evan Longoria described it as a ‘bummer’ for Rays fans and ‘difficult’ for team families.

When would this happen?

The Rays are contractually tied to Tropicana Field through the 2027 season.  There was talk of having this done by 2024, but St Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriesman dug in his heels on Twitter:

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On the surface this looked like it could be a real death knell for baseball in the Tampa Bay area.  St Pete wasn’t budging on the plan and the Rays had shown no interest in staying in St Pete.

Up steps Hillsborough County Mayor Jane Castor.  Remember the stadium plan that fell through in Ybor City?  Ybor City happens to be in Hillsborough County.  Be it opportunistic or part of a more malevolent plan, Mayor Castor seized on the freeze with St Petersburg leadership and announced that she wasn’t against the idea of sharing the team with Montreal.  As reported in the Tampa Bay Times, she said:

I’m optimistic about it, the Rays want to stay in the Tampa Bay area. We want to keep them in the Tampa Bay area, and we’re going to do everything that we can with the caveat that the citizens’ appetite of paying for a stadium is about zero at this point.”

She went on to add that the tax breaks and funding schemes were ‘all viable’.

The current standing

And that’s about where we’re at as of this being written.  Stuart Sternberg continually insists that the Sister City plan is the only way to keep Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay area under his stewardship.  What it all means?  That’s open to interpretation but we’re basically left with three options.

1 – It’s all a bluff.  Sternberg wants his stadium in Ybor City but he doesn’t want to pay much for it.  If he can threaten local government with taking the team away, perhaps Hillsborough county will ‘find’ some money from somewhere.

Verdict – Unlikely. Why threaten the sister city idea when he could just threaten moving altogether?

2 – Soft start to a permanent move.  Ownership wants out of Tampa Bay, out of Florida and out of the USA.  By starting with the split city idea Sternberg gets his foot in the door to either make the move permanent for himself or sell to Stephen Bronfman and his group of Montreal investors hoping to bring the Rays to Canada.

Verdict – Possible. The pockets need to be deep at the other end but already being partly in Montreal would likely make a sale easier.

3 – They mean it.  The Rays have frequently had to be resourceful, radical and creative in order to keep up with the league.  Whether by using utility players, shifting, using an opener or making the Trop completely cashless, they’ve rarely balked at being a bit different.  Why stop there?  Whilst it seems somewhat distasteful to most now, who’s to say that this isn’t the future of sports ownership?

Verdict – Probable.  It probably makes more money; it probably makes huge amounts more and how often has anything been more important to baseball owners than that.

Do we know where the Rays are going?  No.  Has much changed since they started looking ten years ago?  Barely.  Will empty stadium jokes continue to rain down on the dome as long as it’s there?  Absolutely.

Rob Noverraz is part of the podcasting team and an occasional writer at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @RobNoverraz

Make sure you subscribe to the Bat Flips and Nerds podcasts and follow us on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds. News, views and interviews, all with a British twist.

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