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Business Observer Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022 4 months ago

Rays' plans for split season foiled, future in limbo

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With the Sister City plan dead, the team is taking a hard look at its future.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s back to the drawing board for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The team announced Thursday, Jan. 20, that its plan to split its seasons between Tampa or St. Petersburg and Montreal was rejected by Major League Baseball officials.

“Today’s new is flat out deflating,” says team owner Stu Sternberg. He spoke at an afternoon press conference.

“Major League Baseball’s executive council has decided to end our Tampa Bay Montreal Sister City plan. For more than two and half years, with MLB’s support and encouragement, we have focused our efforts on this ambitious and novel pursuit. We’ve made great strides both here and in Montreal. That’s what makes the council’s rejection of our plan all the more painful for me.”

Sternberg did not say why the league made the decision and as of Thursday afternoon MLB had not commented.

The Rays created the Sister City plan because of pathetic attendance numbers at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and a lack of corporate support locally. The team saw the only viable alternative was to split the season between Tampa Bay and Montreal. The team would play 41 games in each city, with the first half of the season played here and the second half up north. The cities would alternate playoff games.

The plan would allow for two TV and radio markets as well as provide for two pools of corporate sponsors and access to two fan bases. The plan also required each locality to build a new stadium and said the localities would have to foot half the cost.

With the plan dead, the Rays must now look toward the future and decide where the team should play after its lease expires at Tropicana Field in 2027 — Tampa, St. Petersburg or elsewhere.

Sternberg says his goal since taking ownership of the Rays 17 years ago is to keep the team in Tampa Bay for “generations and generations.” But, despite continued success on the field, attendance at games consistently ranks at or near the bottom of MLB. This, team officials, fans who do show up, broadcasters and players all say, is heartbreaking.

To help counter that, the team has tried to build new stadiums before both in Tampa and St. Petersburg but failed.

So, with the Sister City plan dead, the team will be left hoping that the dynamics that led to the need for such a bold plan have changed. “We’ll see how the stands look this year and the support we get and that’s going to help inform us going forward on our plans,” Sternberg says.

Meanwhile, the clock is running. With the lease on Tropicana Field expiring in five years, a decision must be made soon in order for there be enough time to build a new stadium somewhere in the area or for the team to consider other options.

On Thursday, as the news broke that MLB had killed the deal, the mayors of both Tampa and St. Petersburg issued statements saying they were each ready to work on getting new stadiums built to keep the team in the area.

Mayor Ken Welch in St. Petersburg says in a statement that he and City Council are working on a plan to redevelop Tropicana Field and that he’s confident the city can partner with the Rays to “create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Welch has said in the past that the perfect place to build a new ballpark is at Al Lang Field because of its historical significance and because it showcases the city.

Across the bay in Tampa, there have already been talks about building a new stadium in Ybor City. While those conversations are in the relatively early stages, Mayor Jane Castor says in a statement she’s “optimistic the Rays will call Tampa Bay home for many years to come.”

“All along our goal has been to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. We had been working on both sister city and full season proposals, and now we can focus all of our energy on a full season.”

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