MLB Grants Rays Permission to Explore “Sister City” Plan

Rays

After a decade of failed attempts to land a new publicly funded ballpark – with a roof – in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area, the Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball to explore the relocation of half the team’s home games to Montreal. The proposed “sister city” plan would see the team stationed in Florida for the early part of the season, before it plays out the balance of its home schedule – during the summer’s hottest months – north of the border; a solution that would allow the team to build a less expensive open air venue, that would presumably be more palatable to tax payers, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Rays owner Stu Sternberg acknowledges that the idea is radical, but has suggested it may be the most viable way to ensure the franchise remains in the region “for generations to come.”

Howie Long-Short: Sternberg’s split season concept is unusual, but there are several examples of teams throughout sports history that have played home games in more than one city within the same season. The NBA’s Kings split 3 seasons (’72-’75) between Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska, the ’83-’84 Utah Jazz played 11 games in Las Vegas and the Expos moved 22 home games during the ’03 and ’04 seasons to Puerto Rico. It’s far more difficult to come up with an example of a team that operated with a “sister city” model and was particularly successful as a business in both locations.

The Rays lease with the City of St. Petersburg runs through 2027 and mayor Rick Kriseman opposes the “sister city” plan, so there are legal hurdles if the club decides to forge ahead, but forcing the franchise to honor the terms of a deal it wants out of isn’t going to improve the city’s chances of retaining the team. One source told The Athletic that “unless they agree to allow [the Rays] to look into this…the team is gone.” I agree. The smart play here is for St. Petersburg to insist on a long-term commitment from the team – contingent upon the development of a new stadium – to break the existing lease.

Without a new stadium, the team won’t be in on Florida’s Gulf Coast come 2028; Nashville, Portland, Las Vegas and San Antonio have all been mentioned as potential relocation destinations. It has been estimated that a new 27,000 seat domed stadium in the Tampa area would cost taxpayers upwards of $900 million, whereas a roof-less building could be constructed for as little as $600 million.

There has been speculation about baseball’s return to Montreal since the team left the city prior to the ’05 season, but reports that Stephen Bronfman (son of the Expos’ original owner) has inquired about taking a minority stake in the Rays and come to an agreement with a developer on a site for a new ballpark in the city has only increased the buzz. If Sternberg’s “sister city” proposal fails, Montreal will likely need to wait for an expansion franchise; the Rays are not convinced the city is a viable full-time option for relocation. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the league would consider awarding an expansion franchise to Montreal, but not until the A’s and Rays find long-term stadium solutions.

Tampa Bay is 29th in attendance (only the Marlins draw fewer fans/game), has historically struggled to generate local sponsorship revenues and maintains one of the league’s worst television deals, so it’s also among the biggest beneficiaries of the league’s revenue sharing program. While owners in some cities would likely object to the Rays claiming a 2nd geographical territory, it’s worth wondering if the idea of continuing to grow the pie and the prospect of keeping more of their own money would be enough for the “sister city” plan to gain widespread approval.

Fan Marino: The “sister city” plan has wrinkles to iron out (think: location of playoff games, MLBPA approval), but if the team could convince government officials in both Tampa Bay and Montreal to build new venues for a part-time tenant (which seems like a tough sale), it could work. Adding a 2nd television rights deal, “a robust corporate base for sponsorships and a fervent fan base [in Montreal]” (think: ticket and merchandise sales) would seemingly increase the net value of the franchise.

That said, Andy Dolich (was president of business operations for the Grizzlies when the team moved from Vancouver to Memphis and considered playing some of their games in Nashville) believes that a “relocated, top of the line, futuristic ballpark in Tampa” is the best solution for the Rays. Dolich explained that “having two moving pieces is more complicated than one and if the team owner would pick up the cost of the roof and make that contribution to the community, it would galvanize the fan base.”

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Author: John Wall Street

At the intersection of sports & finance.

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