It was announced on Thursday that Major League Baseball had granted permission to the Tampa Bay Rays to explore the possibility of splitting their home games between St. Petersburg, Florida and Montreal, Quebec.
Jeff Passan of ESPN was the first to break the news.
This news comes a little over one month after the Tampa Bay Rays’ owner, Stuart Sternberg, expressed his frustration over the franchise’s middling attendance numbers thus far in the 2019 season.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times back in May, Sternberg warned that there could be “ramifications” if the attendance numbers did not improve soon.
“There are ramifications.’’…
“I’m genuinely enjoying this and trying to put us in the best position we can to win and provide an amazing experience for anybody who follows this team or chooses to show up at a ball game,’’ Sternberg said. “In the background we’re working to do what we can to ensure that baseball remains (in the bay area) for generations. That’s been my mantra, and it’s been no different.
“But certainly what has gone on and what goes on is going to have an effect on it. And it’s not purely in my hands to have that happen.’’
Sternberg has remained firm on his commitment to keeping the Rays in the Tampa Bay area for years to come, but the fan support has not followed his example up to this point. According to ESPN, the Rays are averaging just 14, 545 so far in 2019 which is particularly disappointing given the team’s early-season success. The Rays are currently 43-31 and sit just a few games back of the New York Yankees for first place in the American League East.
This is not a new problem for the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2008 the Rays won the American League East and made it all the way to the World Series, eventually losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. That year the team placed 26th in attendance, averaging just 22,259 throughout the season.
The only team averaging a worse attendance record in the 2019 season than the Rays is the fledgling Miami Marlins, who are only managing a 9,378 average attendance per game so far. The big difference between the Marlins and the Rays, however, is that the Rays are a legitimate playoff contender while the Marlins are a rebuilding, glorified Triple-A roster.
However, it is inaccurate to say, “the Rays have no fans” or “nobody in Tampa cares about baseball”. I know this, personally, because of my time spent attending The University of Tampa for my undergraduate degree. The Rays have plenty of fans, college-aged and older, who love to watch their team play. What they don’t love, unfortunately, is having to go to Tropicana Field to do it. Sitting in Tropicana Field for a baseball game is not a fun experience, and having to trudge through St. Petersburg traffic, which is dominated by snowbirds and beach-going tourists, makes the experience even worse. Sure, tickets to Rays games are fairly affordable, but why go through all that hassle when any Rays fan can hang out at a nice outdoor bar in Tampa and watch the game there?
This begs the obvious question: why don’t the Rays just move out of Tropicana Field and relocate the franchise somewhere else? This is where things get complicated regarding the Tampa Bay Rays and their contract with the city of St. Petersburg. The Rays never signed a traditional lease to play at Tropicana Field. Instead, the organization signed a “Use Agreement” with the city of St. Petersburg, which prevents the team from bailing out of the city early and only having to pay a small fine for breaching the lease.
The punitive damages to both the Tampa Bay Rays and the city of St. Petersburg would be astronomical. This is mostly due to the impact the Rays leaving would have on the city, which could make the case that it is owed upwards of $200 million per year to cover the impact of the team leaving the city before its agreement is up. That number comes from the loss of jobs for those working at Tropicana Field, combined with the total cost of the building and maintenance of the stadium, which would fall solely on the city if the team were to up and leave prior to the use agreement expiring.
According to Eric Macramella of Forbes, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is already shooting down any possibility of allowing the Rays to explore this option.
“As for sharing games with Montreal, the Use Agreement at Section 2.04 expressly provides that the Rays must “play all its homes games” at Tropicana Field unless St. Petersburg consents to the Rays playing some of its game elsewhere.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has already said it’s not something that will be considered.
“Ultimately, such a decision is up to me,” said Kriseman. “And I have no intention of bringing this latest idea to our City Council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly.”
On top of that, that same agreement at Section 11.01 does not allow the Rays to “enter into, initiate or conduct agreement or negotiations (directly or indirectly)” to play games elsewhere.”
That is pretty much the final nail in the coffin regarding any potential sharing of home games with the city of Montreal. The city of St. Petersburg is clearly not willing to budge on their current use agreement with the team, which gives them financial leverage over the Rays and prevents the organization from being able to explore any other option.
The best option left for the Tampa Bay Rays is to play out the remainder of their agreement with the city of St. Petersburg, which expires in the year 2027. After that, the franchise will be free to explore new stadium options in the Tampa Bay area or anywhere else in North America, for that matter. From there, Rays’ owner Stu Sternberg must decide if baseball is truly viable in the Tampa area, or if the best move for his franchise is a complete relocation.