Click the arrow above to listen to the full interview between Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld and St. Pete Catalyst Publisher Joe Hamilton.
A plan to split the Tampa Bay Rays’ season with Montreal is the best and quite possibly the only way to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, according to Brian Auld, Rays president.
An opportunity to play baseball out of doors in optimal weather conditions in each city in new stadiums built at lower cost than domed structures is one reason the “sister city” concept is worth exploring, Auld said in an interview with St. Pete Catalyst Publisher Joe Hamilton. The prospect of the team doubling its fan base and doubling its corporate support is another reason to consider a split season, he said.
The Rays have a lease that commits the team to playing through the 2027 season at Tropicana Field, owned by the city of St. Petersburg. The team was negotiating with Mayor Rick Kriseman over a possible shared season with Montreal until last month, when Kriseman issued a memo saying those talks were over.
If the Rays want to continue exploring the idea of splitting the team’s season between St. Petersburg and Montreal, it would have to be for the 2028 season and beyond, said Kriseman, adding that he continues to believe that the Rays will decide to stay in St. Pete full-time.
In the interview with Catalyst, Auld said he and other Rays management have come to love living in the Tampa-St. Pete area, but the location presents challenges.
“We’re not a single large city. We are four to five individual municipalities with bridges that separate us and with challenging public transportation situations,” he said. “We’re also a very entrepreneurial environment … I love the quality and nature of the Tampa Bay business community, but it has fewer companies that can put down six- and seven-figure sponsorship deals than other markets that have Major League Baseball.”
In addition, baseball is a summer game, and many people who live in the Tampa-St. Pete area spend all or part of their summers elsewhere.
“Some of those challenges that are specific to the Tampa Bay area, we underestimated when we did our initial demographic analysis,” Auld said.
A new domed stadium could cost more than $1 billion, which is a heavy lift, he said.
“Our next hope is to bring in another market similar to ours, one that loves baseball,” he said. “If we can bring in Montreal companies, Montreal fans, we can generate a lot of tourism between both markets, we can double our television audience, we can keep our current corporate sponsors at the same level they are now and build a corporate base on top of it, you’re talking about a fundamental change to our business.”
Kriseman has said the city will move forward with redevelopment plans for the Tropicana Field site, with or without a stadium for the Rays.
The Rays have a stake in the potential redevelopment. The team’s use agreement gives the team the right to control anything that happens on the site, and if the Rays and the city want to partner in development on the site, the Rays would get half the proceeds from the sale of the land.
“It’s difficult to see a way that makes sense to start developing that 85-acre parcel in a coherent manner if you don’t know if, when and how long the team is going to be there,” Auld said. “Given that we continue to believe the Tropicana Filed site is a very viable site for the team, we don’t want to hamstring our ability to make it a great home for us down the road.”
Auld took issue with the idea that the Rays offered the split season as a leverage play. The team essentially is a free agent in 2028, he said, and could get much more of an upper hand by simply saying it wouldn’t be playing in the Tampa-St. Pete area after 2027.
Instead, the Rays have gone through difficult negotiating processes locally and with Major League Baseball to try to make the sister city concept work.
“We believe in this. We think it’s a great solution that gives us the possibility of putting a much higher payroll on the field year in and year out and allows us to be a competitive market in the big leagues in a way that there’s no other solution to,” he said.
Splitting a team’s season is an innovative idea but it’s also generated a lot of skepticism.
The Rays are used to skepticism, Auld said. He cited other initiatives the team has tried in the face of being told “you can’t do that.”
“You can’t start relief pitchers. You can’t win with the lowest payroll in the game. You can’t survive this guy leaving. You can’t have no star players who move on through free agency,” he said. “We’ve been doing the ‘you cant’s’ for long enough that we’re pretty excited about trying to do one more.”
Still, he understands the skepticism.
“This is a different, weird, new way of looking at sports. But we’re Florida. You can follow your home team anywhere with the way streaming works now, you have access to your teams wherever you are, and it’s time to think about a new way to make baseball more successful here,” Auld said.