The Tampa Bay Rays Are Considering Splitting Time Between Florida and Montreal
Searching for ways to boost attendance, the Tampa Bay Rays are thinking of splitting their season between Florida and Montreal. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has granted the Rays permission to explore a plan that would allow them to start the season playing home games in Tampa Bay and finish their home schedule in Montreal. Although major hurdles are on the horizon (St.Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman informed the Rays he would not let them have talks with Montreal as the team has an agreement with the city until 2027), the team’s principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, said through communiqué: “I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration”.
Why Would the Tampa Bay Rays Move to Montreal?
As the league is considering expansion (notably in Mexico), moving the Rays part-time to Montreal wouldn’t be a full-fledged expansion, even though it would bring back the MLB in the city since the Expos moved to Washington, D.C. in 2004. Prior to that move, the Expos had been the last team to split a season between two host cities, playing 22 home games during the 2003 season in Puerto Rico.
The MLB plan is based on the construction of new stadiums in both Tampa Bay and Montreal. Tropicana Field has consistently ranked as one of the worst MLB stadiums due to its unfavorable location and a poor layout. The Rays have always struggled to draw fans, only breaking 2 million in attendance once in its inaugural season. Their average attendance of 14,545 this season ranks last in the American League and 29th in MLB, in spite of having won 90 games last season and standing at second place in the AL East. After 10 years of trying to get a new stadium built in the Tampa Bay area, most recently with plans for an $892 million fixed-roof ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City falling apart last December, the Rays are pursuing this novel plan. They see it as the best way to improve their financial standing while keeping the team, at least on a part-time basis, in the Tampa Bay area.
Rob Manfred, who has been baseball commissioner since January 2015, has been more nuanced than his predecessor Bud Selig when it comes to dealing with the two outstanding stadium issues facing baseball: Tampa Bay and Oakland. Part of that is because the economics of the game are changing, to the point where attendance is less a reflection of economic health than interests it generates. Advanced media, regional sports networks, and soon legalized gambling will increasingly mitigate against attendance ever again remaining a barometer of franchise health.
Selig wouldn’t entertain the notion of moving a team to a city unless there were at least shovels in the ground for a new ballpark. Manfred has already said that in the case of Montreal, financing, plans, and a timetable are more important. That lack of pressure has helped the potential Montreal ownership group speak to both civic and provincial levels of government. Manfred is also said to be OK, at least theoretically, with the idea of a publicly-traded company owning a significant stake in a team, less afraid of the relative financial transparency than Selig.
How Are the Locals Reacting to the News?
This won’t go over well with the people in Tampa Bay, but this much is clear: Montreal is closer to getting a new ballpark at this time than either St. Petersburg or Tampa. Stephen Bronfman has reached a development deal on land in the Montreal’s Peel Basin. Bronfman made the following statement: “We have been hard at work for several years examining how we can bring baseball back to Montreal in a sustainable manner. This concept is definitely one that is of interest to my partners and me and we are looking forward to studying this further.”
Stephen Bronfman and his partners comprise a group of Montreal-based business leaders who are dedicated to working together to carry out a plan that will result in the return of Major League Baseball to Montreal. This group is led by Stephen Bronfman, Executive Chairman, Claridge Inc. together with Pierre Boivin, President, and CEO, Claridge Inc. The Group also includes Alain Bouchard, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Board of Alimentation Couche-Tard, Mitch Garber, Chairman of the Board of Cirque du Soleil and Invest in Canada, Eric Boyko Co-Founder, President and CEO of Stingray Digital Group Inc. and Stéphane Crétier, Founder, Chairman, President and CEO of Garda World. The Montreal Group is supported by William Jegher, Partner, Transaction Advisory Services and Quebec Real Estate Leader at EY, and by Richard Epstein, Lawyer, Partner, Board Member, and co-leader of the Mergers and Acquisitions practice at BCF LLP.
There is thus serious money involved. One of the major players, Mitch Garber, has significant knowledge in the world of casinos, gambling and online gaming, serving from 2013-2017 as CEO of Caesars Acquisitions, leaving after accomplishing a merger between Caesars Acquisitions and Caesars Entertainment. Not a bad guy for Manfred to have on a team’s board as your league enters a relationship with legalized gambling.
But there is another aspect to this story that must be considered: what if by making a very public signal that one of the 30 Major League teams is interested in “sharing” games, Manfred is sending a wider signal to other locals who might be interested in a big-league team. It’s not like the good old days anymore, with cities falling all over themselves to outbid each other for teams and opening public coffers wide. Montreal and Portland, Ore., seem to be the cities most primed for either expansion or relocation. Mexico City and Monterrey are also intriguing options. During a press conference on Tuesday, June 25th, owner Stuart Sternberg admitted there hasn’t been yet a lot of discussion with the Montreal group, led by Stephen Bronfman, but he remains optimistic about the final outcome. He has no idea about playoff configurations, nor about plans for a new stadium (either in Tampa or in Montreal).
Sternberg has called the press conference to build excitement. He hasn’t received permission by the MLB to concretize the project, only to explore the possibilities. As per contracts signed with St.Petersburg, he plans to follow them to the letter and pledges to keep the team where it is through the 2027 season. But he leaves the door open for further relocalization. Though he admits that any ownership in the MLB cannot decide by itself where its team will play. The other owners, the MLB higher echelon, the fans themselves ultimately decide where a franchise plays. He wishes to open discussions at all these levels. And from the answers he has gotten so far, the future prospects of the Rays appear bright, even through a share with Montreal.
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