A proposed plan by the Tampa Bay Rays to split its season between its current home in Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball, in a decision Rays owner Stu Sternberg described as “flat-out deflating.” This outcome is likely to extend the franchise’s long-running search for a new ballpark and calls into question the team’s long-term future in the area.
Despite more than a decade of sustained success on the field, spurred by a baseball operations department considered among the game’s best, the Rays continue to play before sparse crowds at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the franchise’s home since its inaugural season in 1998. The team’s lease on the ballpark does not expire until 2028; Sternberg insisted he has no plans to sell his club or pursue relocation.
“We’ll see how the stands look this year, the support we get,” Sternberg said. “That’s going to inform us, as well, going forward with our plans.”
In a news conference on Tuesday announcing MLB’s decision, which was rendered by commissioner Rob Manfred’s executive council, Sternberg expressed his regret that this plan could not bring baseball back to Montreal, which has not hosted MLB games since the Expos departed for Washington in 2004. The two-city plan was met with skepticism when MLB permitted the Rays to explore the possibility in 2019. Sternberg described the plan as a “bold concept” which he believes will be raised by other clubs in the future.
“Partial seasons are going to be the wave of the future in professional sports,” he said.
But split-season setups will not be the norm in the present. Instead, the Rays will ponder a fundamental problem for the organization: Winning games has not drawn people into The Trop, which is located more than 20 miles away from downtown Tampa, connected to the city through the traffic-plagued corridor of Interstate 276.
Since 2008, the year of Tampa Bay’s first postseason appearance, the team has posted a .545 winning percentage, the fourth-best in the sport. The Rays reached the World Series in 2020. The club set a franchise record with 100 victories in 2021. And still the park resides with the majority of its seats empty, with only 9,513 average fans per night in 2021, the 28th lowest tally in baseball. This result qualified as an improvement from 2018 and 2019, when the team ranked 29th. The team finished last in attendance each season from 2012 to 2017.
“And that’s coming off three postseason appearances, 100 wins, a World Series appearance,” Sternberg said. “Plus a decade or more of excellence. That informs the idea that we should have people in the stands. I understand we’re not going to be 12th in attendance in baseball, or 10th. It’s just not to be, unfortunately. But it would be ideal if, off a 100-win season, we could fall somewhere like No. 20 in attendance in Major League Baseball. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
Sternberg, who took over the franchise in 2005, said he would consider options for a new ballpark in both St. Petersburg and Tampa. At various times over the past 15 years, the Rays have discussed new sites at several different locations in the area, most recently featuring a proposal for the downtown Tampa neighborhood of Ybor City.
At the 2018 Winter Meetings, Sternberg said the Ybor City plan had fallen through. That next summer, MLB permitted the Rays to investigate a split agreement with Montreal. Sternberg said he was unsure why the executive council made its decision to kill the project. Sternberg was asked if he felt “betrayed” by his fellow owners.
“That’s a word,” he said. “That’s a word.” He added, “The game is peculiar. Things happen for a lot of reasons — sometimes for the good, but always with good intentions for the game itself. We just quite often have differing opinions on what that might mean.”
(Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)