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Rays Baseball President Brian Auld recently gave his best sales pitch on why the team has no choice but to split a season with Montreal. How such a novel arrangement would benefit both the team and the Tampa Bay community.

At Friday’s Tiger Bay Club luncheon, held at the Cuban Club in Ybor City, Auld was adamant that the only way the franchise can stay in the region is with a new, open-roof stadium. While sharing the team with Montreal, Canada. Auld seemed to prefer an Ybor location, not mentioning the Tropicana Field site as a possibility until the end of his speech.

Worse yet for St. Pete baseball fans and the future of Al Lang Stadium, Auld said the Rays – who own the Tampa Bay Rowdies – would also move the successful soccer franchise across the bay if a new Ybor stadium is constructed.

“The Tampa Bay Rays do not have a place to play on opening day of 2028, and that will be here sooner than we think,” said Auld. “We have to talk about it, we have to deal with it and we have to find a solution.”

Auld, who joined the Rays in 2005, began his pitch by noting the on-field success of the organization. Since 2008, the Rays have the fourth-most wins in Major League Baseball. The Rays have reached the playoffs seven times with two World Series appearances. They won 100 games last season, and the future appears bright with players such as Randy Azorena. who took home American League Rookie of the Year honors Monday. In addition, Wander Franco, who finished third in voting despite only playing 70 games.

In addition to serving as the President for the Rays, Auld is also Vice-Chairman of the Rowdies, who face Louisville City FC for the USL’s Eastern Conference title Nov. 20 at Al Lang Stadium.

“So again, I think we’re doing about as well as you could ask for on the field in terms of those results,” added Auld.

Auld said he would not defend the Rays’ current home, Tropicana Field, other than to say. “it is a safe, clean and secure place to watch baseball.” He then stated the organization has spent $50 million making the domed stadium a “great place for our fans to come”. Audl noted how great a corporate citizen the franchise has been for the area.

“In the wake of a pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis. We really got a chance to see how important a sports team and their venue can be,” began Auld. “We tested more people (for Covid) at Tropicana Field. Did it more efficiently than any other site in Pinellas County.”

The Rays president also described how the ‘Trop provided a non-controversial drop-off site for mail-in election ballots and how the team’s charitable foundation has donated millions of dollars to support the surrounding community.

Auld did not mention what effect losing a baseball team and its venue to Tampa and Montreal would mean for St. Petersburg.

After years of giving away tickets and serving as the punchline for jokes on national television, the Rays underwent a rebranding in 2008. The team went from worst to first in the standings, making its first appearance in the World Series. Auld said that season showed the area how a major league team could “energize, excite and unite us all.” Auld also relayed how that was the year the team proposed building a new waterfront stadium at the Al Lang site in downtown St. Pete. He added it would have had a sail to cover most of the stadium to protect players from the rain and provide shade for fans.

“We were really eager to pull it off,” he said. “But the political will to support that project never materialized, and it fell short before we even got to a referendum.”

Auld explained that once Mayor Rick Kriseman gave the team permission to search for a new home across the region, they promised not to pit the two sides of the bay against one another and immediately focused their attention on Ybor City. This was due to that area being close to the geographic and business center of the Tampa Bay region.

In addition, Auld launched into the reasons why Tampa Bay has such unique attendance struggles. First and foremost, the bay area has fewer businesses and people within a 30-minute drive of the stadium than any other team in Major League Baseball.

“It’s not even close,” he said. “If baseball went to Ybor, the number nearly doubles, but it is still very close to the bottom of the league.”

Auld said this is a function of the geography of the area, including being surrounded by water. While he is proud and appreciative of the region’s corporate sponsors, he said the small and medium-sized businesses that make up the local economy cannot support the team as Coca-Cola and Delta can with the Atlanta Braves. Finally, Auld noted that a baseball season is 162 games, 10 times as long as professional football, and Tropicana Field is twice as large as Amalie Arena – home to the  Lightning.

“The fact that more people go to Rays games than the Buccaneers and Lightning combined is lost on a lot of folks because the average attendance is so low compared to the rest of the league,” said Auld.

Auld said 20 years of data, 20 years of attendance numbers and two failed stadium proposals (including a previous Ybor site) have made it very clear that “a full season of baseball does not work in this marketplace.”

The Rays propose to play spring training and the first half of the season at a new stadium in Tampa Bay. The Rowdies would play their full season at the same facility, as could a new women’s professional soccer team.

“There have been two leagues that have been in conversation with us of late, and they’ll be able to play there too,” said Auld of a women’s soccer franchise. “We’d love to get into that business as well.”

Auld believes the new facility could host over 200 events annually and envisions the stadium holding 27,000 seats at about four-and-a-half stories tall, without a roof. He explained that most fans attend one to three games a year, and if the team can get those same people to come to the same number of games – while playing 40 games in Tampa Bay rather than 80 – it would effectively double attendance in a split season.

The Rays would follow the same plan in Montreal, which would also double the number of corporate sponsors. Auld said that “almost all” of the team’s current sponsors have said they will continue their sponsorship despite having fewer games, although they might require additional signage and seats to maintain the same level of spending.

Auld said every game – whether in this region or Montreal – would continue to air on local television and radio, and indicated that is how most fans currently engage with the Rays. The team would then sign another television deal in Montreal. He also believes that fans in Montreal would visit the area for spring training, providing a direct impact on the local economy as they stay in area hotels and frequent the region’s restaurants and bars.

Auld said that whether at the Tropicana Field site or in Ybor City, “and for the purposes of today I’m focusing on those two areas for baseball,” the franchise would be an integral part of a city’s master plan.

“There are dozens of undeveloped acres in those two spots that will benefit from having a ballpark nearby,” he said. “A four-and-a-half story ballpark that can integrate nicely into the rest of the neighborhood as opposed to landing like some UFO the way Tropicana Field did in St. Petersburg.”

Auld realizes this plan will be hard for fans to accept but said they need to realize this is the only path to keep the team in the region.

“There’s not another option,” said Auld succinctly. “We don’t want to lose this team.”

Auld said the Rays are innovative and creative both on and off the field, and team officials put a lot of thought into every decision they make. He explained the idea is new and fresh, but it is the only way to move forward.

“It wasn’t like in 2005 we came here and said, ‘let’s build this fan base up for 17 years and then pop sister-city on everybody,’” said Auld in earnest. “We’ve gotten here by studying how to be successful, and that’s what drives everything we do.”

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The Rays’ flirtation with Montreal could become a true romance this week

The occasional spring exhibition game at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, like this one in 2017, has been the closest Quebec fans have gotten to Major League Baseball since the Expos left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals in 2005.
The occasional spring exhibition game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, like this one in 2017, has been the closest Quebec fans have gotten to Major League Baseball since the Expos left Montreal to become the Washington Nationals in 2005. [ BEN PELOSSE / JDEM | Ben Pelosse / JdeM ]

By John Romano

TAMPA — For the better part of two years, Rays executives have spread their message across Tampa Bay. Civic groups, church groups, political groups. Skeptical crowds, angry crowds, apathetic crowds. If you were willing to listen, they were willing to talk.

The Rays wanted you to know their proposed sister city plan with Montreal was neither a ploy to sneak out of town, nor a way to create leverage for a better stadium deal.

It was, they insisted, the only way to save baseball in Tampa Bay.

Now that message is about to take on greater urgency.

And the next audience on the agenda could have the authority to help make it happen. The Rays are likely to seek the blessing of baseball’s executive council this week to transition from the current exploratory plan to a more definitive pursuit of the shared city idea.

Going this route would accomplish several things at once for the Rays. It would reconfirm the franchise’s commitment to Montreal politicians and developers who are getting antsy about their up-in-the-air stadium plans near the city’s waterfront. It would also be a shot across the bow for Tampa Bay politicos who remain leery of the team’s sincerity about the split-season plan.

And, if the executive council agrees, it would be a tangible sign that Major League Baseball’s owners are seemingly losing faith — if it hasn’t already evaporated — in Tampa Bay’s ability to be a permanent, full-time home for the Rays.

Now maybe, as some people continue to believe, this is all part of a bluff. A three-card monte deal to distract everyone’s attention from the team’s true, unspecified intentions.

But, if so, it’s getting terribly elaborate and runs the risk of alienating more potential allies. Particularly when the Rays could simply bide their time for another six years while simultaneously cutting a deal in some other city to leave Tampa Bay as soon as the use agreement at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

So how would the Rays go about getting permission from MLB’s executive council at this week’s owners meetings in Chicago? The same way they’ve been converting fans over lunches of dried-out chicken and broccolini at Tampa Bay speaking engagements the past two years.

The pitch is simple and has been honed to near-perfection as team president Brian Auld demonstrated at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club last week in Ybor City:

1. Tampa Bay and Montreal are both flawed markets but combined could generate enough revenue to allow the Rays to be a mid-tier team in terms of revenue/payroll.

2. Building smaller, boutique-style stadiums without roofs in each market would be less expensive and, thus, minimize the risk for municipalities that would be asked to contribute roughly half the cost.

3. The alternative is no Major League Baseball.

This last point is never framed as a threat, but simply a point of fact. Which, considering the historically poor level of attendance in Tampa Bay, the possibility is not that difficult to envision.

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And while there are legitimate market-driven reasons for Tampa Bay’s poor attendance, it does not change the reality.

The Rays won 100 games in 2021 and finished second-to-last in the American League in attendance. That has never happened in more than a century of Major League Baseball. Not in Oakland, not in Cleveland, not in Seattle, not in Minnesota. What’s worse is the Rays were coming off a World Series appearance in 2020, so enthusiasm should have been as high as any market in the AL.

And, no, the pandemic is not to blame. COVID existed in every city and the Rays still drew fewer fans than virtually every MLB market.

Tampa Bay’s geography, population and demographics will always make attendance a challenge, but drawing as poorly as the Rays have while making seven postseason appearances in the last 14 years is not simply a red flag. It’s more like a white flag.

So does this mean politicians should be rushing to City Hall looking for loose tax dollars for a Rays stadium? Heck no. The economic and societal return on building a stadium still needs to be weighed against other community investments in either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.

But the direction this is heading does suggest the shared city plan is not some street-corner hustle. As skeptical as I was about the plan two years ago, I’ve come to believe in ownership’s sincerity.

The Rays have done enough on the field and in the community in recent seasons to deserve the benefit of the doubt when they say their focus is on the sister city plan.

You may not like it and you may not think it is feasible.

But it’s time to at least take it seriously.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected] Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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