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Thu, Oct. 17

Kobritz: Rays’ outreach to Montreal means goodbye Tampa Bay
Beyond the Lines

Two stadiums in two countries, playing half a season in one and half in the other. Sound strange? Improbable? Impossible?

In a bombshell announcement, the Tampa Bay Rays said they were pursuing a plan to play half their schedule in Florida and half in Montreal – in two yet-to-be built stadiums. The reaction was mostly astonishment by those who took the statement literally. But there’s a method behind the team’s apparent madness.

Major League Baseball undoubtedly vetted the idea in advance, which means the exploration of a split-city concept has support among MLB owners. Despite that, such an arrangement isn’t feasible over the short or long term, which makes it DOA.

The Rays are desperate. Numerous attempts to cobble together a stadium plan have failed, and while Montreal is closer to building a new ballpark than either Tampa or St. Petersburg, their goal is an 81-game schedule, not half a season. Now the Rays expect governments on both sides of the border to build a new ballpark for a 40-game schedule? Good luck with that.

Among the innumerable problems associated with the proposal, the Rays’ lease at the Trop in St. Pete, which runs through 2027, isn’t one of them. The 85 acres the stadium sits on is worth more for mixed-use development than a ballpark. The team is entitled to 50 percent of the sale of the land, but if they were willing to take a lower percentage, the City of St. Petersburg might agree to a quicker exit.

While the impediments to the plan begin and end with funding two new ballparks, another major issue is the cooperation of the players’ union, which must approve any plan to shuttle players and families between Florida and Canada in season. Count on the MLBPA playing hardball given the current frosty relationship with the owners.

Additional roadblocks are territorial rights and selling the idea to the fans in both cities. When the Expos left Montreal in 2004, MLB granted Toronto territorial rights to all of Canada. Teams defend territorial rights against all claims and at all costs. Would the Blue Jays willingly surrender those rights to accommodate their countrymen in Montreal? Perhaps, if enough loonies are on the table.

The fans are another story. It’s likely neither fan base will be completely satisfied with half a season of games, but Rays fans have had more than 20 years to embrace the team and have chosen to ignore them. Montreal fans will be more accepting of a partial season - at least in the short term - thankful for the return of baseball.

Upon reflection, it’s easy to see the announcement of a split-season plan for what it is: less about playing in two locales and more about setting the stage for the eventual departure of the Rays from Florida. The only thing that would preclude the team’s exodus is if the Tampa Bay area agrees to fund a new facility. That outcome is highly unlikely.

The more likely conclusion is the announcement heralds the beginning-of-the-end of Rays baseball in Tampa Bay.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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