MLB Executive Council grants Tampa Bay Rays permission to explore split-season schedule in Montreal

Major League Baseball’s Executive Council, the league’s highest-ranking ownership committee, has granted the Tampa Bay Rays permission to explore the potential of playing a split-season schedule between its home market and Montreal, marking perhaps the most dramatic step to date in the club’s long-running and unsuccessful stadium search.

The step gives the club “broad permission to explore what’s available” in the Canadian market, but still not represent firm owner approval to actually play game there. And there are numerous other significant obstacles, including negotiating with the MLB Players Association and the City of St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Rays currently play at the outdated Tropicana Field in a lease slated to run through 2027 the season.

As a result, any games by the Rays in Montreal are likely at least several years away, if it even happens. MLB gave no timetable for when such a move might happen.

“I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration,” Rays owner Stu Sternberg said. 

Sternberg, who is a member of the eight-owner Executive Council, also said he is “committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come.” But the MLB owner vote still angered elected officials in St. Petersburg. City Mayor Rick Kriseman quickly said he would not grant permission to the club to waive or amend its lease requirement requiring all home games be played Tropicana Field.

“I believe this is getting a bit silly,” Kriseman said. “I have great respect for Stu Sternberg and his team. I love the product they put on the field. I love how they play the game. But after 12 years of indecision…I am tired of the games being played related to getting a new stadium built. We all deserve better and should not take this too seriously.” 

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, meanwhile, said the council vote did not include a pathway toward a permanent relocation for the Rays and was designed simply as a possible means to “improve the economics of the club overall by playing some of their games in Montreal.”

“There was no commitment, discussion, grant on the issue of a permanent relocation,” Manfred said. “It was simply the split-season possibility.”

MLB’s current discussion regarding Montreal is very different than 15 years ago, when the Expos were playing their last of 36 seasons in Canada before relocating to Washington, D.C., and becoming the Nationals. That franchise relocation, MLB’s first since 1971, followed several seasons of the Expos posting by far the lowest attendance in the league and the club playing both the 2003 and 2004 seasons in a split-season format with games in Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico, not unlike the concept not contemplated for the Rays.

That split-season format, however, created a wide variety of logistical and tax complications for Expos players at the time, including maintaining multiple residences, and was not generally deemed a success. 

Montreal more recently has been the site of preseason games involving the Toronto Blue Jays, which have drawn well, and the city has been discussed as a potential candidate for MLB expansion should that happen. 

The MLB vote regarding the Rays presents many more questions than answers. Perhaps chief among those questions is what this move will do to negotiations between the Rays and Tampa Bay-area politicians toward a new ballpark that in Sternberg’s nearly 14 years owning the Rays have not come close to producing a deal for a new facility.

The Rays, despite posting generally competitive teams and again standing squarely in the playoff chase this year, currently rank next to last in MLB in home attendance with its average of 14,546 per game beating only the Miami Marlins. The Rays this past season also reduced Tropicana Field capacity to 25,000, lowest in the league.