Tampa Bay Rays’ future in new doubt after planned split-season in Montreal is axed

Tropicana Field (Credit: Getty Images)

The long-term future of the Tampa Bay Rays is again in sizable doubt after the Major League Baseball team and the City of St. Petersburg, Florida, broke off talks to explore the potential of playing a split-season schedule between the team’s home market and Montreal.

Mayor Rick Kriseman said both the Rays and city must maintain the lease that locks the team into Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. “Both parties have agreed that the best path forward is to abide by the existing use agreement,” Kriseman wrote in a memo sent to City Council. “In accordance with the existing use agreement, should the Rays Organization wish to continue exploration of the shared season concept with Montreal, that exploration must be limited to the 2028 season and beyond.”

The Rays’ two-market plan, which had been provisionally approved by MLB’s Executive Council, marked the club’s most dramatic step to date in its long-running and unsuccessful stadium search. The team currently play at the outdated Tropicana Field, and owner Stu Sternberg believes the franchise will likely not survive long term as a full-time operation in Florida.

“We never say never, but after all we’ve been through and what we’ve learned it’s highly unlikely,” Sternberg recently 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.”

Notably, Kriseman also said the Rays declined an offer from St. Petersburg that would have again granted the club permission to seek a new stadium site elsewhere in the Tampa area, a proposal the mayor was made “in the spirit of regionalism.” The Rays previously had such permission, ordinarily prohibited by their Tropicana Field lease, from 2016-18 and during that time wanted to pursue a new ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City. But the club was not able to close a deal there with local officials to fund the facility, and the permission window closed at the end of last year.

Due the club’s outdated facility in St. Petersburg, the Rays rank firmly among the league’s worst performers among numerous business metrics, notably home attendance. The Rays’ average attendance of 14,734 in 2019 was the second lowest in the majors, ahead of only the Miami Marlins, despite winning 96 games and reaching the American League Division Series. The Rays this past season also reduced Tropicana Field capacity to 25,000, lowest in the league.

The split-season plan was complicated and poised to be met with resistance for a number of reasons. The proposal included building two, new open-air stadiums, one in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, and successfully negotiating the plan with the MLB Players Association and the City of St. Petersburg. The players also faced a wide variety of logistical and tax complications, due to the need to play and live in two countries.

It is far from clear what the Rays will do now to ensure the long-term survival of the franchise. Kriseman said the city would consider funding for a new stadium only for a full-time team in St. Petersburg.

“My door is open if the Rays want to discuss a new stadium in St. Pete. But we are not a part-time city. We are not a part-time region. We are a Major League community. No one can doubt St. Pete and Tampa Bay’s trajectory,” Kriseman tweeted.

Sternberg said he “generally agreed” with Kriseman’s characterization of their talks. But added he did not he agree staying pat was the “best way forward,” and that he has not given up at all on the split-season concept.

“We asked for the opportunity to explore this concept with both St. Petersburg and Montreal, and with Tampa and Montreal,” Sternberg said. “We recognize that we must now consider our post-2027 options and all that entails, and we remain steadfast in our belief that the Sister City concept is deserving of serious consideration.”

Further reading: Falcons and Rays go cashless to take fan experience ‘to an even higher level’