You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

MLB pulls plug on Rays' Tampa Bay-Montreal 'sister city' concept, leaving franchise's future in limbo

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 1/20/2022 Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY

The Tampa Bay Rays, to the delight and relief of their fans, will not be playing half their home games in Montreal anytime soon.

Yet Thursday’s news that Major League Baseball’s executive council struck down the club’s zealous “sister city” time share did little to answer the question that’s dogged the Rays for decades:

Where will the club be located on Opening Day 2028?

From NFL plays to college sports scores, all the top sports news you need to know every day.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027, and principal owner Stuart Sternberg has been exploring options in both St. Petersburg and Tampa for a new, ostensibly better-located stadium for nearly two decades. When Sternberg found corporate support insufficient to help fund an $892 million venue in Tampa’s Ybor City area in 2019, he pivoted to the Canadian timeshare.

The concept – smaller, open-air venues designed to serve Florida fans in the spring, Montreal fans in the summer and perhaps both in the playoffs – was slammed by fans around Tampa Bay and scoffed by players who might have to call two cities home over the six-month season. Yet Major League Baseball – which never met a leverage play it didn’t like – gave Sternberg its blessing to pursue the idea before its eight-man executive council of owners abruptly pulled the plug.

That left Sternberg steaming at MLB and no less convicted that his plan is the stuff of a visionary, calling the decision “flat-out disappointing” and a failed opportunity “to unite and uplift two North American regions.”

What Sternberg could not answer in a 35-minute conference with news media Thursday is the question dogging fans of the overachieving but fan base-challenged club.

What now?

While Sternberg said he was not currently entertaining thoughts of permanently relocating or selling the club, he also indicated he will monitor “how the stands look this year” as they formulate next steps. The Rays finished 29th in attendance in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic season, and 28th in 2021, topping only the Oakland A’s – who publicly have threatened a move to Las Vegas – and Miami Marlins.

A view of the field and the ballpark roof at Tropicana Field during the Game 2 of the 2021 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox. © Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports A view of the field and the ballpark roof at Tropicana Field during the Game 2 of the 2021 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox.

This past season’s total was particularly disappointing given that the Rays were coming off consecutive playoff appearances and their second World Series trip in franchise history. Sternberg has long factored the shortcomings of Tropicana Field – most notably access issues on weeknights for fans coming from more-populous Tampa – into the Rays’ attendance woes, yet Thursday wondered aloud what more could be done – with a winning team and what he believes to be devoted community outreach – to stoke interest.

Now, the team and the region are once again on the clock.

“We’re going to have to hit the ground running for Opening Day in 2028,” Sternberg said. “We know that’s been the case since I took over the team. We had plans in 2007 and 2008 (in St. Petersburg) that would have pushed us forward 10, 15 years. A plan in 2017 that would have pushed us forward a few years. And now we’re going to have to come up with something to push it forward potentially or just have us have Opening Day in 2028 most likely in a different venue.”

His sister city plan was a public acknowledgment of the doubt that Tampa-St. Petersburg can fully support an 81-game home schedule; that point was driven home when Sternberg found corporate support for the Tampa proposal flagging. He remains adamant that the split-season concept is just as visionary as many of the Rays’ on-field innovations and not a ploy by a owner desperate for a new venue, or two.

“I think partial seasons are going to be the future of sports,” says Sternberg, “and probably would have served the fans of this community well. They do deserve a full-time team. But I believe the split-season concept is the future.

“Sometimes, people don’t like to be first. We don’t mind being first on things. We’ve been criticized for shifts and criticized for openers and criticized for the way we run our organization, and then lo and behold, in a matter of months and years, they get copy-catted. We have some rotten ideas and they get thrown in the wastebasket. I know we are going to learn from what happened here.”

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, right, chats with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, left, at Tropicana Field on April 3, 2016. © Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, right, chats with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, left, at Tropicana Field on April 3, 2016.

While Sternberg stopped short of a questioner’s concept that MLB’s sudden pivot represented a “betrayal,” it’s clear he was blindsided by the proposal’s downfall and not particularly pleased with the central office or his colleagues. The decision came six weeks into the league’s lockout of players; the players’ association also would have to sign off on a sister city plan.

“The game is peculiar in a lot of senses and things happen for a lot of reasons. We just quite often might have differing opinions on what that might mean,” he says. “The most important thing is that fans and owners and players and all those who work in the organizations all care about the game. And if we all keep that front of mind, it will be in good stead going forward.”

MLB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sternberg says he has never flat-out used relocation as a threat – just, you know, 81 of 162 games – despite the fact “people have advised me to do that.” The A’s, for one, have gone out of their way to tout relocation, with commissioner Rob Manfred’s blessing, to Las Vegas. They’ve since made incremental progress in their hopes for a new ballpark near Oakland’s Howard Terminal.

In Florida, Sternberg will keep pushing the same boulders up well-worn hills on both sides of Tampa Bay. He does see moderately encouraging signs since his last try here, most notably the economic and population growth in Tampa.

“We are going to keep trying in this market,” he says, “and focus on putting a winning product on the field.  I still do believe the region is willing to and able to and looking forward to supporting us in every way they can.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB pulls plug on Rays' Tampa Bay-Montreal 'sister city' concept, leaving franchise's future in limbo

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from USA Today Sports

USA TODAY SPORTS
USA TODAY SPORTS
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon