ST. PETERSBURG -- Major League Baseball’s executive council rejected the Rays’ “Sister City” baseball plan earlier this week, two years and seven months after giving the club preliminary approval to pursue the idea of playing half their future home games in the Tampa Bay area and the other half in Montreal.
Speaking Thursday afternoon on a video conference from Tropicana Field, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg called the news deflating for himself and the club officials who spent the past 2 1/2 years going all-in on this plan. With the split-season concept no longer an option, the Rays’ future is unclear beyond the expiration of their use agreement at Tropicana Field following the 2027 season.
Sternberg said he has no intention to sell the team or threaten a full-time relocation of the franchise but acknowledged the club will have to hit the ground running to find a home by Opening Day 2028. The consensus is that the team would need to have a deal in place in 2023, factoring in time for planning and construction, to be ready for that date. So now the Rays will again attempt to secure a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area.
“We’re certainly going to be exploring things in the Tampa Bay region. I’ve said since I’ve owned the team, for 17 years, that our goal has been to keep it here for generations and generations,” Sternberg said. “We felt that this was a much better approach and something that ensured that it would work. We will see how the stands look this year and the support we get, and that’s going to help inform us as well going forward on our plans.”
The Rays had been exploring the shared season plan since MLB’s executive council granted them permission to do so in June 2019, when Commissioner Rob Manfred said the aim would be “to preserve baseball in Tampa, but improve the economics of the club overall by playing some of their games in Montreal.” However, Manfred said at the time there was “no commitment on the part of the owners to ultimately approve a plan.”
The Rays formally asked the executive council for permission at the owners’ meetings in November, at which point they were optimistic their request would be granted. Sternberg said the league’s view of the plan changed recently for unspecified reasons and noted that the innovative -- albeit complicated and controversial -- split-season concept “just wasn’t anything MLB was prepared to go forward with.”
“Major League Baseball simply isn’t prepared to cross that threshold right now,” Sternberg said.
The proposal involved the construction of two new ballparks, an open-air stadium in the Tampa Bay area and one in Montreal. The Rays would have spent Spring Training in the Tampa Bay area, then divided their regular-season home games evenly. The Rays pitched the idea as an inventive and positive one for both areas, suggesting it would enhance tourism, business and cultural connections between the two markets. In theory, creating additional revenue streams through new ballparks and a second media market also would have increased the Rays’ player payroll, which has ranked among the lowest in the league despite their success on the field dating back to 2008.
The plan also would have returned baseball to Montreal, where the Expos played from 1969-2004 before relocating and becoming the Washington Nationals. While Sternberg and the Rays sought part-time stadium possibilities in Tampa, Montreal business leader Stephen Bronfman led a group doing the same in Quebec. Sternberg said sharing the rejection with Bronfman was the most difficult part of the news, adding that Montreal “has earned the right to have baseball back.”
The idea was controversial among Tampa Bay fans who did not want to share their team with another market, and there was some skepticism among players about how the plan would be executed. But some local business leaders expressed their support, with 39 of them recently signing a letter backing the split-season plan in the Tampa Bay Times.
The Rays have been attempting to secure a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area for nearly 15 years. Before the split-season concept, they were unable to reach a deal with Hillsborough County in 2018 on a proposal for a nearly $900 million, fixed-roof stadium in Ybor City and scrapped plans in 2009 for a ballpark at the Al Lang Stadium site on the St. Petersburg waterfront.
The Rays regularly post some of the Majors’ lowest attendance totals, having ranked 28th or lower every season since 2011. Last September, team president Matt Silverman referred to the Sister City plan as “the best and possibly only chance” for Major League Baseball to remain in Tampa Bay for the long haul.
“We’re going to keep trying here in this market, and we’re going to do our best, as we have been, and focus on putting a winning product on the field,” Sternberg said. “I still do believe that the region is willing to and able to and is looking forward to supporting us in every way it can.”
There had been some recent signs of public progress toward a new, open-air ballpark on a site in the Ybor City area near downtown Tampa. Mayor Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times in December that her staff was working with the county and the Tampa Sports Authority to create a “workable financial package” for half of a $700 million stadium. Sternberg said those conversations were “very far advanced,” but all designed for the Sister City concept.
However, Sternberg noted that the city of Tampa has “had some plans in the background” for a full-season ballpark, as has Pinellas County. Castor confirmed in a statement posted on Twitter that Tampa had been working on “both sister city and full-season proposals, and now we can focus all of our energy on a full season” and expressed optimism that the Rays will remain in Tampa Bay. St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch also released a statement saying the county and city will “put together the best plan possible” to keep the Rays in St. Pete.
Sternberg said the Rays will be open to many different ideas as they move forward.
“The pinpoint location [for a ballpark], while it’s still incredibly important, is not nearly as important as it was for a lot of very positive reasons,” he said. “I know that when the time comes and we look, we’re going to be very, very open-minded. That is the hallmark of what we do here throughout our organization.
“I have always been committed to keeping a team here in Tampa Bay. Everything I’ve done is to try to keep the team here in Tampa Bay and put a great, great product on the field, which I know that we have accomplished here to this point.”