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MLB says NO to Split-City Baseball: St. Petersburg and Montreal

The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Tampa Bay Rays’ sister-city project between St. Petersburg and Montreal has been dropped by Major League Baseball (MLB). The news is breaking and on-going on the Tampa Bay Rays future use and need of a stadium.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is scheduled to meet with the media at 1 p.m.

Sternberg recently said that this project, which his organization has been working on for two and a half years, “was the only possible solution” to keep Major League Baseball in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

This decision will force the Rays’ management to look for a full-time home, something they have tried to do unsuccessfully in the past, including in 2008 and 2018.

The team still has a lease to play its home games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg until the conclusion of the 2027 season. The Tampa Bay Rays Stadium issue has been on-going for years now.

Fans have been vocal since the start about possibly only having a part-time major-league team in Tampa Bay.
Fans have been vocal since the start about possibly only having a part-time major-league team in Tampa Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

By Marc Topkin Published 

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays’ proposed plan to split seasons in Montreal has been killed by Major League Baseball officials, creating even more uncertainty about the team’s long-term future in Tampa Bay.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred informed Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg on Tuesday that the league’s executive council rejected the innovative and controversial plan. The decision stunned team officials, who had spent 2 ½ years on the project and were expecting approval to proceed with efforts to get open-air stadiums built in both markets. The Rays also sought approval from the players union.

“We put everything we had into this effort because we truly believed in it — we thought it was great for the Rays, for our players, for Major League Baseball, for Montreal and Tampa Bay,” team president Brian Auld told the Tampa Bay Times. “And to have the rug pulled out from under us like this is extraordinarily disappointing.”

Rays officials now will reluctantly head down a path they have explored — and dismissed — previously: seeking a new full-time home in the Tampa Bay area. The lease agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season and plans to build a new stadium would likely need to be in place by 2023 to be ready for opening day 2028.

Team officials said they have no immediate plans to ask permission from MLB to explore relocation to another market, and that Sternberg, who took over the team in 2005, has no plans to sell the team.

“Our focus has always been on how we can keep the Rays in Tampa Bay and have the franchise thrive for decades,” said Matt Silverman, another team president. “That is unchanged. …

“Today’s news isn’t positive, but it’s on us to turn it into a positive, and channel a lot of the support that we’ve received from throughout the community into our next effort and make that the successful one.”

As the Montreal plan took shape, Rays officials said it was their “only” option, and dismissed any chance of getting a new full-time home in the Tampa Bay area. The team strongly hinted that if a split season plan didn’t happen, leaving Tampa Bay would be a more likely scenario than remaining here full time.

Now — to the joy of those who disparaged the split city plan, some saying they would rather have no team than to share one — the Rays will again look at options around Tampa Bay.

The Rays’ lease agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season.
The Tampa Bay Rays stadium lease agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

They tried twice previously. In 2008, the team explored a waterfront stadium with a sail-like cover in downtown St. Petersburg. And in 2018, they considered a fixed-roof stadium in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. Now the teams says it welcomes new ideas in those or other locations.

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The team had been in ongoing talks with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and other officials about building an open-air stadium on a different Ybor site as part of what was called the “sister city plan,” agreeing to contribute about half of the estimated $700 million cost.

A full-time stadium will require some type of roof and a larger footprint, and likely cost in excess of $1 billion. Sites throughout the area — in Tampa, in St. Petersburg, near the Hard Rock casino and others — likely will be reconsidered. Those options are likely to include the Tropicana Field site, though that would be complicated by a redevelopment plan that has been proposed — and approved by former Mayor Rick Kriseman. The plan does not currently include a stadium but could be modified to add one.

Alex Vadia, the lead partner of Miami’s Midtown Development — Kriseman’s preferred pick to redevelop the Trop site — said in a recent interview that he had yet to meet with the Rays about the potential for a stadium there.

“Any conversations were limited at best,” he said. “How can we design a stadium without the team’s input? But we look forward to working with them.”

Vadia said Midtown’s proposal had more than enough space for a new ballpark, in addition to everything else the city was looking to accomplish.

Now the Rays have to decide next steps.

“Our track record shows that we will look at anything and everything in our efforts to keep the team here,” Silverman said. “Nothing is on the table and everything is on the table at the same time. And together we get to forge the future of baseball in this community.”

The Rays came up with the split-season plan a few months after ending talks with Tampa area officials in December 2018. In the absence of a workable financial plan for the fixed-roof stadium, they saw it as a creative and trend-setting solution to split games between two sites. They created a partnership with Montreal business leader Stephen Bronfman to work that side of the deal, and invested considerable time, research and money in the project.

Despite winning consistently over the last 15 years, the Rays have been at or near the bottom in attendance and, as a result, in revenues and spending on payroll.

They saw the Montreal plan as a solution to those issues. It would provide the opportunity to take advantage of prime weather at different times of year and play baseball all season in open air stadiums that were less expensive to build. The team assumed they could increase revenues and player payroll, as the greater demand for tickets would lead to increased attendance and sponsorships. They also would have benefited from multiple TV and radio contracts.

Though final details remained to be worked out, the basics of the plan were for the Rays to play their spring training games and the first two months of the season at the Tampa Bay stadium, then move in early June to Montreal. There was some talk of making an early-season visit to Montreal and playing a late-season series or two in Tampa Bay. Postseason games were to be alternated between the host cities on an annual basis.

The plan had many critics and included several significant hurdles, including an agreement that needed to be negotiated with the players union (likely based on financial compensation for the players having to maintain two homes). The team also was trying to put together complicated high finance deals with multiple government entities in two countries to get the stadiums built.

ays principal owner Stuart Sternberg says he has no plans to sell the team.
ays principal owner Stuart Sternberg says he has no plans to sell the team. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

They did not expect the death knell to come from MLB, as the eight-member executive council had given them permission in June 2019 to explore the split-city plan. Despite the ongoing lockout over a new labor agreement, team officials expected the league to give them the go-ahead to proceed, which they expected would help get the other parties on board.

Manfred certainly sounded in favor of the Montreal plan in a February 2020 interview, telling the Tampa Bay Times, “I am 100 percent convinced and, more importantly, the other owners have been convinced by Stu, that this is best way to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.”

“I continue to be impressed by the energy that they’ve devoted to the project,” Manfred added. “And to the fact there is significant receptivity among our group, and excitement in some quarters about the possibility.”

Rays officials said they were not made aware of what changed from Manfred’s earlier comments to the rejection of the plan.

As frustrated as they were, they said they will soon get back to work on finding another option.

“We’re absolutely committed to figuring it out,” Auld said. “If there’s one thing the Rays have been pretty good at over the years, it’s accomplishing things that people think we can’t do. So we’re going to bring every ounce of innovation and creativity and analysis we’ve got to solving this problem. I think we just did that in coming up with the sister city plan and while that’s no longer an option to us, we’ll use those resources and everything the organization’s got to keep the team here.”

And they don’t have much time.

“It’s no secret that as of now we don’t know where we’re playing on opening day of 2028. We don’t have a plan. There wasn’t a Plan B,” Auld said. “We certainly need to hurry up with this, and I believe we’ve got a lot of great partners in this community that want to see us be successful. We look forward to engaging in conversations with them in the very near future.”

Times staff writer Jay Cridlin contributed to this report.

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