The off-the-shelf franchise model proposal championed by the Rays, splitting their seasons between Montreal and Tampa, after new ballparks and multi-use facilities were built at both locations, has been crushed by Major League Baseball, more than two years after it was originally greenlit, and despite comments from Rays owners that they were very happy with the project’s progress.
It’s a development that was, in the words of principal owner Stewart Sternberg, “flatly deflated”. If he knew the details of why the plan was scrapped by the MLB powers that be, he didn’t say so during his Zoom news conference Thursday afternoon.
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And so Sternberg and his Rays are back in a familiar position. They need/want a new stadium in a new location, preferably, they’ve said over and over again, in the greater Tampa Bay area, because the current situation at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg just isn’t good enough. It’s hard to imagine a more inconvenient location for most of the region’s population, and they don’t have any real viable options on the table right now.
But here’s something different this time. Do you remember when the club made its first real push for a new stadium? That was around 2007-08, when manager Joe Maddon was hired, the club dropped the “Devil” from its name, and the team began winning baseball games. Shocking game numbers, compared to the first decade of the franchise’s existence.
The club has an unbreakable lease with the city of St. Petersburg that runs until the end of the 2027 season. In 2007, that seems like forever. Any kind of proposal or even hint of an idea had to include a way to get around that lease, which meant compensating the city in some way. Even in 2017, when the Rays mounted another push, the lease still had a decade of impact.
Now, though? It’s 2022, and as crazy as it sounds, 2027 isn’t that far off.
Now, the Rays look at the 2028 season, dream of their potential new stadium, wherever that may be, and think, “Oh shit, we’ve got to move.” For the first time in this eternal stadium drama, the window begins to close. Sternberg admitted as much when he said, “We’ll have to start working for Opening Day in 2028.”
The process of building a stadium is not just building the physical facilities; That’s the easy part. It is a process of years. Sternberg then repeated previous attempts to get a new stadium, concluding with a sentiment that’s pretty obvious: “Or just that we have Opening Day, most likely, in 2028 in a different place.”
So what are those options? At the basic level, there are two: stay or go.
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Regardless of what ends up happening for Opening Day 2028, the Rays will certainly be looking at the “stay” option now, as they regroup from this setback. Because while 2027 is not too far away, it is not just around the corner either. They can’t let go of plans to leave a market four years from now, and then hope to get some interest (and spending) from fans.
That interest has already been affected by the idea of sister cities with Montreal. As you can imagine, loyal Rays fans weren’t too happy about losing their team during the middle of the season. And while the roster and people in the front office have changed, the only thing more constant than winning teams was the noise, heard as complaints, you can be sure, about the state of the stadium. Rays stadium fatigue is a real thing.
“It absolutely exists, but I can promise and assure you that it will not let that affect our approach and the outcome of whatever happens,” Sternberg said, perhaps convincing someone somewhere? “We always seem to come up with new ideas and new approaches.”
Sternberg was asked why this time might be different, why it would be possible to build a new stadium in a prime location when similar efforts have floundered for the past 15 years or so.
“What I’ve learned from this process this time around is that people are, I think, genuinely more concerned about losing the team in the future than they might have been in the past,” he said. “And I also learned that people believe that the area, not incorrectly, is much, much better off financially in many ways than it was three or four years ago.”
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The thing is, there’s legitimately every reason to believe that, in a new geographic location, the team could draw significantly better in a market that’s still growing: Tampa/St. Pete’s market size ranks 13th out of 30 teams. And more fans in the seats watching a team that has proven itself capable of sustained success would mean more companies would be willing to spend their money on advertising with the club.
But it’s hard to get away from poor attendance, for legitimate reasons. The Rays ranked 28th out of 30 teams with average attendance in 2021, despite winning the top 100 games in the American League. There were 29 in 2019, 29 in 2018 and 30, the last ones, in all seasons from 2012 to 2017.
So yes, add those numbers to the inability to develop a new stadium over the past 15 years and it’s understandable that the team might consider options elsewhere.
Okay, but where?
This seems obvious, for many reasons. The motivation is there. The story is there. The base is there. The public and private support, built up over the last two and a half years as part of the sister cities plan, is there. And if you’re building a ballpark that can host 40 MLB games per season, you’re also building one that can host 81 games. No way would any type of facility get MLB approval if it didn’t meet the proper standards.
If commissioner Rob Manfred and the other owners are looking for a reason to blow up current division formats and realign leagues, the Rays’ move would be the perfect opportunity. However, there is no evidence or reports that they do, so what makes the most sense is that the Rays, again, if they were to leave Florida, would move to a geographic area that would allow them to remain in the League East. American. That means Portland and Las Vegas, while not completely out of the picture, aren’t at the top of the list.
Montreal works with this, obviously. Nashville too; the flight from Boston to Nashville is about half an hour shorter than the one from Boston to Tampa.
3. North Carolina
Yes, Charlotte is the North Carolina city that Manfred mentions whenever he mentions potential expansion cities. But Charlotte has logistical problems that complicate things. A little way up Interstate 85, though, is the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle, a metro area that’s only slightly smaller than the Charlotte metro area. It’s bigger, by market size, than Nashville. The team would almost certainly be branded as the “Carolina Rays” rather than the Raleigh Rays or Triangle Rays (that sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?).
The options are all, shall we say, a bit messy and complicated, and time is ticking. Meanwhile, the Rays continue to win games in front of a largely empty home stadium (average attendance in 2021 was 9,513 fans). It would be nice if that excellent product played in a packed stadium.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.