Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB

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The Tampa Bay Rays’ inventive and controversial plan to share their home schedule with the city of Montreal was scrapped by Major League Baseball officials earlier this week, a move that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, described as “total deflation”.

Rays officials had spent 2½ years focusing on what was called a “sister city” proposal, believing it was the best path to increase revenue without permanently moving the franchise. Now they must pivot, either revisiting previously stalled Tampa Bay Area stadium talks or exploring a new city. Sternberg, who took questions during a videoconference for more than half an hour on Thursday afternoon, showed no commitment.

“We’re definitely going to explore things in the Tampa Bay area,” Sternberg said. “Since I’ve owned the team for 17 years, I said our goal is to keep it here for generations and generations. We tried in the past to build in St. Petersburg, we tried to building a full season in Tampa as well, so the idea that it wouldn’t fully work out isn’t necessarily how our approach has been. [the ‘sister city’ plan] was a much better approach, and something that guaranteed it would work. We’ll see what the stands will look like this year and the support we’ll receive, and that will also help inform us about our plans going forward. »

The Rays have been the industry standard — with the Oakland Athletics, navigating their own stadium troubles — to secure a sustained win despite lesser revenue streams.

The Rays have won back-to-back American League East titles, outscoring financial behemoths like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and have reached the playoffs seven times in the past 14 years. But they’ve also only ranked 28th out of 30 teams on average since 2011. Last year, after a World Series appearance, Tropicana Field welcomed 761,072 fans, a total that tops only those of the A’s and of the Miami Marlins.

The Rays’ financial commitments have been commensurate with those attendance numbers, with their opening day payroll never reaching $80 million and ranking in the bottom five in the sport at the start of each of the last 11 seasons. The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, and it’s believed the team should solidify plans for a new home by 2023 if they hope to stay in the area.

“There’s nothing more I’d like to see happen than staying here,” Sternberg said, speaking from the center field pavilion at Tropicana Field. “We can stay here for another 30 years, potentially, can’t we? But for some reason that seems to be contributing to the lack of footfall. At least that’s the belief here. So we’ll be looking for a new one. place. .. We’re going to keep trying here in this market, and we’re going to do our best, like we’ve been doing, and focus on bringing a winning product to the field. And I still believe that the region is ready and able to do so and is happy to support us in any way possible.”

The Rays explored the possibility of a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida – the city that is home to their current domed baseball stadium – in 2008. Ten years later, there were talks of a fixed-roof stadium in Ybor City, a historic Tampa neighborhood.

Months after the latter plan was canceled, Rays officials teamed up with Montreal entrepreneur Stephen Bronfman to work on a “sister city” concept that would take advantage of the ideal weather in both cities and theoretically generate more revenue due to increased demand for limited tickets. . The latest iteration of the plan saw the Rays sail through spring training and the first two months of the regular season in the Tampa Bay area, then move to Montreal around early June. The two cities would alternate hosting duties during the playoffs and would each be equipped with new outdoor ballparks.

The plan received widespread criticism from Rays fans who did not support the concept of sharing their favorite team and blamed the aesthetics and location of the current stadium for the team’s low attendance. But Sternberg and Rays officials appeared to believe he had the backing of MLB’s eight-person executive board, which originally cleared the team to explore the plan in June 2019. Rays and Montreal officials presented their last speech to the group at owners meetings in November.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Sternberg on Tuesday that the group rejected him, largely because the logistics were too complex and it was too risky to make a long-term commitment to such a nuanced concept. . MLB declined to comment publicly on its decision. Still, Sternberg thinks partial seasons “will be the wave of the future in professional sports” and that MLB just didn’t want to be the first league to take that step. When asked if he felt “betrayed” by his co-owners, Sternberg replied, “It’s a word. It’s a word.”

“It’s something that we completely pushed here for the sister city,” said Sternberg, who has yet to seek MLB’s permission to move. “It was a bold concept, but it was something that we felt would have been incredibly rewarding for baseball, for the players and for the fans in both fields. Again, those were our thoughts. Now, we’ll regroup and see where things stand, and we’ll consider a number of things, I’m sure, over time.”

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