Proposed partial relocation won't help Rays' attendance problem

Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK — In his opening remarks to a group of reporters assembled at the owners’ meetings on Thursday, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that “the executive council approved Tampa Bay going ahead to explore the possibility of a split season,” which would see the team play a portion of their home games in Montreal.

The potential return of baseball to Quebec made waves through the conference room and around the sport as ESPN’s Jeff Passan released a report announcing the plan as it was unfolding in real time.

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But asked about the “Montreal move, or exploration,” Manfred interjected to clarify.

“I prefer to think of this as a Tampa Bay …” at which point he trailed off to light chuckles around the room.

It’s sort of funny because it seems so pedantic, quibbling over semantics. But in fact, it was perfectly in keeping with Manfred’s attempt to couch what amounts to a partial relocation within the framework of keeping baseball in Tampa Bay. If that sounds like splitting hairs, that’s because it is. The Rays are stuck in St. Petersburg, Florida, for now, and so any conversation about playing baseball elsewhere by the people with the power to make that a reality has to be immediately tempered by an insistence that this is really about what’s best for Tampa and that there are no specifics to speak of yet.

“The purpose of the split season would be to preserve baseball in Tampa but improve the economics of the club overall by playing some of their games in Montreal,” Manfred said. Which makes very little sense unless you interpret it as implicitly juxtaposed to leaving Tampa Bay altogether.

It doesn't appear the Tampa Bay Rays will be splitting games with the city of Montreal next season. (Getty Images)
It doesn't appear the Tampa Bay Rays will be splitting games with the city of Montreal next season. (Getty Images)

The Rays can’t move anywhere before 2028 without the mayor of St. Pete’s permission — not across the bay to Tampa proper and certainly not to Montreal. And from the sounds of it, that permission is not coming anytime soon.

“Ultimately, such a decision is up to me. 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,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a news conference in St. Petersburg on Thursday.

He went on to chastise the Rays ownership group for the “games that are being played related to getting a new stadium built,” calling the threat of a split season “just the latest chapter in a book of negotiations.”

In 2016, St. Pete granted owner Stu Sternberg a three-year window to look for a new stadium location around Tampa Bay. A proposal was drawn up for a park to be built in vibrant Ybor City in downtown Tampa. Where it fell apart was in the financing — the city didn’t want to or couldn’t raise sufficient funds to make up the difference between the $185 million Sternberg was publicly pledging and the $900 million price tag.

Kriseman might be on to something there. The cynical read on the split season proposal is that it’s an attempt by the ownership group to leverage two markets against one another in an effort to see which one will offer a more attractive stadium financing plan. The goal, then, is not to end up with two homes but rather just one shiny new one that Sternberg doesn’t have to pay for himself.

The obfuscation around what this would look like in practice makes some sense when you consider just how complicated it would be for a sports team to split its home base between two countries. This isn’t really going to happen, right? The franchise currently known as the Rays is not going to ask players and personnel to maintain two in-season households; they’re not going to obtain Canadian work permits for office employees; or hire two separate staffs, right? They’re not going to convince two cities to fund new stadiums at a time when people and politicians are becoming increasingly aware that tax-funded ballparks are not the economic boom that they’re often billed as, right? But in that case, why bother saying it at all?

Why fans aren’t going to Tropicana Field

The dated, no-frills confines Tropicana Field is hurting attendance for the Tampa Bay Rays. (AP)
The dated, no-frills confines Tropicana Field is hurting attendance for the Tampa Bay Rays. (AP)

In their 22nd season of existence, the Tampa Bay Rays have one of the better records in baseball, jockeying for the top spot in the AL East with a New York Yankees club that has the highest estimated payroll to their lowest. And yet still, their attendance is second-lowest, ahead of only their state-mates in Miami, who haven’t finished a season with a winning record in a decade.

The Rays’ attendance has ranked 29th or 30th overall for nine straight seasons including this one. It’s been a nagging issue for years, but the juxtaposition between their current success and the way fan engagement has failed to respond accordingly serves to underscore the problem.

There are a number of possible explanations for the Rays’ inability to get fans in seats and two of the major ones are the stadium’s location in St. Petersburg — a daunting drive from downtown Tampa, especially during rush hour — and the stadium’s atmosphere within the dated, no-frills confines of Tropicana Field. Manfred admitted as much, referencing the “limitations of the current facility.”

Rather than “explore” relocation — which would condemn an already struggling team to eight and a half seasons of lame duck baseball — the franchise is simply “exploring” creative solutions to the Rays’ paltry payroll. That’s why they’re negotiating with Montreal’s politicians about getting a new stadium built, of course.

Maybe baseball is betting on the Tampa Bay region realizing what they stand to lose before it’s too late and ponying up the cash that they were reluctant to raise for Sternberg if he threatens to take 41 home games elsewhere. But frankly, that’s a callous bluff to make at the expense of two fanbases. Quebecers have been begging for years to bring baseball back to Montreal and baiting them into dedicating tax dollars to that dream with a logistically impossible half-measure feels needlessly unfair.

As for Tampa Bay, if fans were ambivalent about making the trip to the Trop before, it’s hard to see how downgrading them to an early season timeshare will engender greater loyalty.

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