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Business Observer Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 1 month ago

As the Tampa Bay Rays plan for the future, is there reason to hope the Sister City plan will work? History says no

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The Tampa Bay Rays' plan to play in two cities faces reality of past failures — to the north and at home.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

As the Tampa Bay Rays came off a 100-win season and undertook a run at a second consecutive World Series, much of the attention in recent weeks had been on the team’s future in the region. Thanks in large part to some poorly timed plans and PR missteps from ownership, the talk locally — and nationally — before the team began its playoff run was dominated by where it will play in 2028 rather than if they could beat the Boston Red Sox in the first round. 

The reason for this is a push by corporate stewards to sell the community on its plan to split time between Tampa Bay and Montreal, building new stadiums in each city and playing the first half the season in Tampa or St. Petersburg and the second half in Montreal. Meanwhile, local fans and officials unhappy with the plan are hoping a stadium deal can be worked out here and that the team will keep either Tampa or St. Petersburg its permanent — full time — home.

Lacking in both these conversations, however, is the real, and sad, truth: if history is any guide, neither plan is likely to work.

On at least three occasions the Rays have tried to work out a deal to build a stadium locally only to be rebuffed for a myriad of reasons. And Montreal had a baseball team for 35 years that was stripped away and shipped to Washington D.C. for reasons that remain largely unchanged today.

Which brings us to questions the team fails to address — at least publicly.

If Rays owners tried and failed several times to build a new stadium both in St. Petersburg and Tampa, what will make this time any different? And if Montreal failed to keep its baseball team in large part because there was no public financial support for a needed new stadium, and there still isn’t according to the current mayor, where is the money for a stadium there going to come from?

And then there's the biggest and most important question of all: If this plan fails and the Rays are unable to get a stadium built in Tampa Bay and in Montreal, what happens in 2028?

“Personally,” says Stu Cowan, a longtime sports columnist at the Montreal Gazette, “I think the idea (of) an MLB team splitting a season between two cities in two different countries that have absolutely nothing in common to be ridiculous...especially when they are hoping to have new stadiums built in both cities.”

The Plan

Brian Auld, one of two presidents for the Tampa Bay Rays, stepped up to the microphone Friday, Oct. 1 at the Oxford Exchange and started selling.

The team was a day away from winning its 100th game and waiting to see who would make the Wild Card and possible opponent for the American League Division Series the following Thursday. The team had been on a remarkable run the past two seasons, making the World Series in 2020. 

FILE: Brian Auld, president of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

This with almost the lowest payroll in baseball. And, despite all the success, with one of the worst attendances in all of baseball.

Auld quickly celebrated the team’s performance that morning at the café and bookstore just outside downtown Tampa — yet he wasn’t there to talk playoff baseball. And the 70 or so there to hear him speak as part of the Café Con Tampa speaker series weren’t there to hear about the starting rotation.

'She believes Tampa is the ideal location for the Rays and the Rays would succeed based in Tampa.' Spokesman for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor

This was to be a conversation, difficult at times, about the team’s plan to divide time between Tampa Bay and Montreal.

“This is why I am asking everyone to keep an open mind,” Auld says. “When you look at the over 20 years of data we have on Tampa Bay, when you look at the demographics in the region, the distances that separate our wonderful cities, when you ask the hard questions, we concluded that it’s next to impossible for baseball to succeed in Tampa Bay today.

“We’re not missing by a few thousand people a night,” he continues. “We are less than half of where we need to be with an absolutely incredible team.”

Auld did not respond to an email seeking comment and the team did not make him available to media after the event or grant an interview request. In an email, a team spokeswoman says “we’re not doing media regarding Sister City during the playoffs, but would be happy to chat after the postseason.”

The plan, as Auld laid it out for the next hour, boils down to this: There's not enough corporate or fan support in the Tampa Bay market to support the team. The only solution, then, is to build two stadiums — one in each city — and have the team play half the season in each. As for the playoffs, they alternate cities each year.

If this were to happen, he says, the team would add a television market and increase sponsorships, allowing it to generate more revenue and, in the process, secure the team in Tampa Bay.

Auld, and the team, argue that building two smaller open-air ballparks would be cheaper than one domed stadium that could cost nearly $1 billion. These stadiums could be built with 25,000 seats, about 15,000 fewer than newer stadiums, and be open for community use year-round.

They would be paid for with a mix of public and private money, Auld says.

The plan, he says, would allow Rays fans in Florida and Montreal to still see and hear the team on television and radio each night and to still have access to 41 games in person each season. The average Rays fan today, he says, comes to about three games, if that number remains unchanged, the plan would work.

As for how the Major League Players Association feels about the plan, Auld says they are still in discussions. But increased revenue would help boost player salaries — a win for the union.

Left unmentioned is the cost to players and team officials who’ll have to maintain homes in two countries and, possibly, pay income taxes in Montreal, Quebec and Canada. 

While the plan’s feasibility may not be one everyone rallies around, it’s difficult to argue with the reasoning.

The Rays’ attendance problem, and the reasons for it, have been discussed ad nauseum for years. But on Wednesday Sept. 1, with the Boston Red Sox in town and the team amid a playoff run, even the most optimistic and bright-eyed fan could have seen first hand the problem the team has faced for years and why it has to think drastically. Attendance that night: 7,808.

“Everyone has had the opportunity to come to our games,” Auld says. “People aren’t showing up. I wish they were. I really do.”

Reason for hope?

Opportunity. That's a word that will be batted around a lot if the Rays do wind up leaving Tampa Bay.

Fans had the opportunity to watch top-tier baseball live. The team had the had the opportunity to work out a long-term solution and the cities and politicians had an opportunity to work out a deal to build a stadium.

Fans, to date, haven’t taken advantage of their opportunity. Now, the question is, if, with the little time remaining to work out an arrangement before the team’s lease expires at Tropicana Field in 2027, will the team and local governments work out a solution to allow the Rays to stay, even if it’s on a part time basis?

LOUIS LLOVIO: Fans inside Tropicana Field Sept. 26 demand the team move to Tampa.

A spokesman for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor says she “has said repeatedly that she is keeping an open mind about the split season idea.”

But, he adds, that “she believes Tampa is the ideal location for the Rays and the Rays would succeed based in Tampa, and her priority is keeping the team in Champa Bay.”

For now, Tampa could be where the team moves to despite a previous plan for an $892 million stadium in Ybor City failing in 2018. The plan failed during negotiations with the city and Hillsborough County. At that time, with the Rays facing a looming deadline to inform St. Petersburg about its future in the city, the team blamed a lack of progress on talks, a sentiment echoed by Major League Baseball, which said the proposal lacked specifics.

'Personally, I think the idea (of) an MLB team splitting a season between two cities in two different countries that have absolutely nothing in common to be ridiculous.' Stu Cowan, Montreal Gazette

Despite what happened in 2018, Ybor City remains one of the most viable options.  

There has been back channel chatter the team is interested in building a stadium on the site of Kforce Inc.’s headquarters at 1001 E. Palm Ave. and adjacent properties. The company has sold the building and is moving out next year. A story on that possibility appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in October and sources tell the Business Observer it's being considered.

The team is not commenting on any potential sites, Auld says.

Another possibility is Gas Worx, the 50-acre development between Ybor City and downtown. The plan does not include a stadium for the Rays. But it could. And there are other potential sites in the area as well that could fit a potential stadium.

“If the Tampa Bay Rays and the community decide that Ybor is the best home for baseball in Tampa Bay, we will work to bring their vision to life in a way that complements the history and character of Ybor and the surrounding neighborhood,” says Darryl Shaw, a developer with holdings in the area and the developer of Gas Worx.

Another option? Building a stadium in St. Petersburg. 

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman didn't respond to a request for comment. Ken Welch, running to replace Kriseman, says the perfect place to build a new ballpark is at Al Lang Field. He believes the site has historical significance along with showcasing the city. 

The money to build it is there, too, he says. Welch says Pinellas County and the city can use bed tax collections to help fund the stadium without dipping into money earmarked for city services. And the team's Sister City plan will make that easier to do.

While he originally opposed the plan, an open air stadium is considerably more cost effective than a domed stadium. And, the team would likely need a domed stadium to play here the full season. 

"I'm confident we can make the numbers work," Welch says. "It's just getting everyone at the table."

Robert Blackmon, Welch's opponent, lists redeveloping Tropicana Field first on his list of five key priorities. Blackmon, on his website, says he’s willing to negotiate with the team.

“I support using bed tax money for infrastructure for a new stadium at the Trop site, and I will fight to get the best deal for the taxpayers,” he says on the site.

He does not say if the stance changes if the team is only playing half the season in St. Petersburg.

The Montreal question

Another obstacle in the Sister City plan? The other sister. 

Cowan, the newspaper columnist, says a group headed by businessman Stephen Bronfman, whose father owned the Expos from 1968 until 1990 likes the plan, but “they will have problems getting government money to build a new stadium for a full team — never mind half a team.”

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante declined an interview request for this story.

The Montreal Gazette reported Sept. 28 that Plante, running for re-election, supports baseball returning but says no taxpayer money will be used to pay for a stadium. And one of her opponents, Balarama Holness, vowed public land will not be used and has said he'd rather pursue a basketball team to come to Montreal.

Cowan also wonders how many baseball fans, especially young ones, are left in the city and if the team could build a solid season ticket base. “I think there could be interest at first in the Expos returning to Montreal, but I think the team would run into many of the same problems that led to them leaving the last time — minus a new stadium if they were able to get one built.”

While there is a long list of reason why MLB moved the Expos, the key ones are similar to what the Rays face now.

In 1997, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, the team proposed a 35,000-seat downtown stadium similar to Camden Yards in Baltimore. It would have cost $250 million Canadian. But Quebec’s premier, Lucien Bouchard, said he wouldn’t give money for a stadium as hospitals were closing. The plan was doomed, as were subsequent efforts. The team moved seven years later.

The question Montreal faced about baseball’s future are similar to ones swirling in Tampa Bay. And those questions will have to be answered in boardrooms and government offices, by politicians and owners.

As for the fans, they’ll be left to cheer in the stands as the Rays fight on in the playoffs. Of course, that's assuming fans show up.

On Oct. 7 at 4:19 p.m., less than four hours before the Rays began what turned out to be a first round playoff exit at Tropicana Field, thousands of tickets for the game remained available. Many eventually sold, but on the television broadcast, large pockets of empty seats could be seen as towering home runs left the park.

 

 

 

  

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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