Sternberg pushes two-market plan for Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, making a public pitch for a split-season schedule for the club between its current home market and Montreal, said the franchise will likely not survive long term as a full-time operation in Florida.

Following last week’s approval by Major League Baseball’s Executive Council to allow the Rays to explore the split-season idea with Montreal, Sternberg said the concept is aimed in part at maintaining some league presence in the Tampa market. The Rays have unsuccessfully sought a new stadium to replace Tropicana Field for more than a decade. And because of the club’s outdated facility in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Rays rank firmly among the league’s worst performers among numerous business metrics, notably home attendance.

“We never say never, but after all we’ve been through and what we’ve learned it’s highly unlikely,” Sternberg said of pursuing a new full-season facility in the Tampa market. “I don’t see it happening in St Petersburg and I would be hard-pressed to see it happen in Tampa as well, just given what I know.”

Rather, Sternberg sought to sell the two-city idea as the best of both worlds in which each market would benefit from what he characterized as a more optimized presence of baseball without the full weight of 81 home games to sell each year. Roughly the first 35 home games of the Rays’ season would be played in the Tampa Bay area, and then move to the Canadian market for the latter portion of the schedule.

“This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one as well, a permanent arrangement, a generational commitment to both communities,” Sternberg said. “This is about a new norm, a better norm for Tampa Bay.”

But the split-season proposal also involves the Rays developing two new open-air stadiums when it has failed thus far to find any real traction on even one new ballpark. The open-air facilities would theoretically be cheaper to build than domed ones. But without any specifics, it’s not known whether two open-air facilities would present less total cost than a single domed ballpark.

Additionally, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman remains decidedly skeptical about a split-season concept. After last week calling the idea “a bit silly,” he said yesterday he would not entertain public assistance for less than a full-time presence for the Rays.

“The City of St. Petersburg will not participate in the funding of a new stadium for a part-time team,” Kriseman said. “We remain receptive to partnering with the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and build a new stadium for a full-time team.”

Kriseman added that “progress moves at the speed of trust. If Mr. Sternberg is serious about this idea or any other, it will require the re-establishment of a good working relationship with my office.”

The Rays’ lease for Tropicana Field ties it to the facility full time through 2027. Sternberg said ideally the split schedule would be in place by 2024, but offered no specifics as to exactly how that would happen. He did say that reaching 2027 without any sort of firm stadium plan would be dire for the club, and represent “as lame duck as lame duck gets.”

Sternberg said he is open to Canadian investors joining the Rays as minority partners, including Stephen Bronfman, son of former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman and current head of a group pursuing a MLB expansion team. But Sternberg said he would remain the Rays’ designated control executive.