When MLB recently killed the Tampa Bay Rays' plan to split its season between two cities, along with it went an outside-the-box idea that now seems radical but will one day be commonplace.
At least that’s what the two businessmen at the forefront of the deal believe.
In a pair of press conferences two hours and 1,400 miles apart Jan. 20, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg and Montreal businessman Stephen Bronfman both said the idea that had developed over the past two and half years would become the model for how professional teams from smaller markets operate in years to come.
The owners say the arrangement, while initially creating some angst among the respective fanbases, gave the Rays a better chance at surviving as it competes with teams in larger markets with deeper pockets. By playing in two markets, the Rays would have allowed for more revenue which could go toward payroll.
And the plan, these executives say, can be a blueprint for other markets moving forward.
“I truly believe it is the way of the future,” says Bronfman, who led the group working with the Rays. His father owned the Montreal Expos from 1968 until 1990.
“It’s very forward thinking and will happen. But often times it takes a first group, a first league, a first person to jump in and take that leap of faith. We would have proved them all right. They would have done the right thing by supporting us. It’s very unfortunate they didn’t end up making that call.”
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Rays officials are left to pick up the pieces — and come up with a solution for what the future is for a team that’s overperformed on the field and underperformed at the ticket office. And they must do this after alienating a chunk of the Rays’ fanbase that balked — sometimes angrily — at the idea of losing the team for half the season. But, those same officials, given truth serum, would likely argue that if said fanbase — and the business community now rallying in support — had just shown up at games in the first place, there would have been no need for a plan that required playing in two cities.
The Rays first 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. The Rays, while continually at or near the bottom in attendance, are also at or near the bottom in payroll. The team believes having a foot in in each market would have allowed the team to remedy those problems.
The key for it to work, Bronfman says, is the two areas are compatible.
In the Rays case, Tampa Bay and Montreal joining forces was a natural fit, they say. Given the weather patterns, the team could have played here when it was cooler and moved north for the hotter months. This would have allowed for open-air stadiums that cost hundreds of millions of dollars less to be built and made watching baseball in both markets more enjoyable. The move would have made the economics of baseball more tolerable here and would have boosted Montreal, a city with a proud baseball tradition that lost the Expos nearly 17 years ago.
More importantly to fans of the team, the plan would have made an already competitive team on the field stronger and allowed it to pay the kind of player salaries needed to attract the biggest names and keep homegrown stars, officials say. “Tampa and Montreal were very well-twinned to do a project like this,” Bronfman says.
“We’re innovative cities. We’re not New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. We don’t have 12 million people in a mega metropolis. We’ve got to be nimble, we’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to do things differently. This project spoke to that.”
Despite public support of the plan from business, civic and chamber leaders in the Tampa Bay region, the team has complained it doesn’t receive the corporate support required to make a professional baseball team financially feasible.
The second issue is public support for using taxpayer money for a new stadium. While both Tampa and St. Petersburg have said bed tax funds could be redirected to helping the Rays build a new stadium, the team has in the past asked for the localities to put in for about half the cost. With the Sister City plan dead, the new stadium for a full-time team will likely have to be bigger and include a dome. This will cost millions more than currently being discussed and could mean taxpayers will be asked to foot a bigger part of the bill. For example, prior to the sister-city deal, plans were discussed for a fixed-roof, 28,000-seat stadium in Ybor City. The price tag on that stadium was projected to be $892 million.
The issue is not much different in Montreal where city officials had said they would not allow taxpayer money to be used to build a stadium nor allow it to use public property.
Bronfman’s Montreal group did say recently that they had corporate support, that there were ways to get help from the government that would not have strained the local economy, including using bonds. The group also says their development would be a boon to the local economy.
The group was weeks, if not days, away from making its plan public.
With the plan dead, the Rays must now regroup and look toward the future, deciding where the team should play after its lease expires at Tropicana Field in 2027 — Tampa, St. Petersburg or elsewhere.
How long it will take to make that decision is unknown. That's in part because the team was only focused on the 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," Sternberg says. "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 says his goal since taking ownership of the Rays 17 years ago is to keep the team in Tampa Bay for “generations and generations” and that's not going to change now.
So, with the Sister City plan dead, the team is left hoping 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.
On Jan. 20, as 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.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch says he and City Council are working on a plan to redevelop Tropicana Field and 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 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.”
Again, a bridesmaid
As for Montreal, the city is once again wondering when and if it will get a baseball team back.
The city and the area want baseball back, and they’ve been trying to get a team back for more than a decade. There are fan groups that travel to games, sending as many a 1,000 people to Toronto for a Blue Jays games, and have helped bring exhibition games to Montreal.
Asked if he thinks the Sister City plan would have worked or if something similar would work in the future, Athanasiou, who worked for the team for 25 years, says he thinks it would. Baseball, he says, meant the return of summer in Montreal.
“I think baseball fans in Montreal would welcome such an arrangement. We have cold months of April/May and October/ November. To have games played in Montreal concentrated in June-September would be great.”
Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.