The Tampa Bay Rays have less than two years to determine where they are going to be playing baseball by opening day 2028.
Speaking at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on Thursday, Rays president Brian Auld suggested January 2022 would be the latest the Major League Baseball team could wait to figure out what it will do if its Sister City concept — a proposal to split games between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal — doesn’t work out.
The Rays’ use agreement for Tropicana Field runs out at the end of the 2027 season, and the timeline to make a decision is ticking down quickly, Auld said.
“It is unclear at best and likely that we will not be welcome at Tropicana Field on opening day 2028 so we need to know where we are going to play. We’ve been at this for well over a decade already, so I don’t take lightly how long it could take. We are working on that in earnest right now. If we aren’t able to be successful with this concept, we’re going to have to figure something out I would argue no later than the beginning of 2022 in order to make an appropriate effort at finding that new home relative to 2028,” Auld said. “It’s 2020 and January 2022 is not very far away. We’ve got to get at this. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he wants to hold the Rays to a provision in the use agreement that bars the team from negotiating to play elsewhere until after the 2027 season. The mayor has rejected the idea of exploring a split season prior to the end of 2027, although some St. Petersburg City Council members say they are open to the idea. Earlier this month, the Rays talked to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, in a meeting the team described as “a meaningful step toward securing the future of Rays baseball in Tampa Bay beyond 2027.”
At Suncoast Tiger Bay, Auld made an enthusiastic pitch for the Sister City concept, saying it was the only way to keep the team in the Tampa Bay area.
He recounted the team’s on-field success, including winning the fifth most games in all of Major League Baseball since 2008 and being in the post-season five times over that span. But despite success on the field, the Rays have had the lowest or second-lowest attendance in the league.
Fewer people and fewer big businesses in the Tampa Bay area are one reason for that, Auld said.
“Major League Baseball requires the very biggest cities with the densest, most highly populated communities, which is fine, but it’s not who we are. It’s not even who we want to be. Tampa Bay is an entrepreneurial community. We’re not dominated by Fortune 500 companies. We’re a variety of beautiful, eclectic, colorful communities,” he said.
Still, the Rays consider Tampa Bay home, he said.
“I’m here today because I love this community. I’ve lived here longer than I have anywhere else, twice as long actually now. Tampa Bay is my home,” Auld said. “This is where we live. This is where we want to be. That is why we are so deeply invested in this community. We’ve spent 16 years making the Rays into a local treasure, building a fan base for something of which we can all be proud. We are pushing for the Sister City concept not in some convoluted attempt to leave town – there are much simpler and more lucrative ways to do that. We are pushing for the Sister City concept because it is the only path we see to remaining in the home we love so much.”
The split season would add revenue through an additional TV deal, increased sponsorships and doubled attendance. Building a new open-air stadium in the Tampa Bay area, where the Rays would play the first half of the season before moving to Montreal, would knock $300 million off of construction costs. Auld said the new facility could be open year-round, used by the Tampa Bay Rowdies (the soccer team the Rays own), and host public events such as Enchant Christmas, which drew 350,000 visitors.
One contentious issue between the Rays and Kriseman has been a provision in the use agreement that addresses future development on the 86-acre Trop site. In response to a Tampa Bay Times report in which the Rays suggested they could block redevelopment at the site if they are forced to abide by the use agreement, Kriseman said last month that the city could move forward with some development as long as it doesn’t impede the Rays’ ability to play baseball at the site.
“The use agreement is designed to prevent either the city or the Rays from developing anything on the Tropicana Field site without the others’ go ahead,” Auld said at Suncoast Tiger Bay. In the Times article, “I was merely trying to explain without the Rays approval it would be difficult to move forward.”
The use agreement also calls for the Rays and the city to split profits on any development at the Trop site. One Suncoast Tiger Bay member asked Auld if the Rays would be willing to give up development rights if they strike an agreement to build a stadium in Tampa.
“In the event that we are on our way to Tampa with a Sister City plan and there are [development] projects that aren’t going to affect people’s ability to come to Tropicana Field, where we will still be playing baseball games during construction and where we are still required to play thru 2028, certainly we would be open to considering them, and certainly there would be ways where we wouldn’t necessarily have to receive the proceeds from the sale,” Auld said.
But in the current environment it’s hard to imagine that, he said.
“We’ll continue to keep an open dialogue with Mayor Kriseman and the city administration. We’ll continue to make sure all parts of the use agreement are abided by, but my strong hope is we’re able to find a solution that allows us to pursue this concept in earnest and pursue figuring out the future of the Rays as soon as possible, as opposed to ‘no sooner than 2028,'” Auld said
Dozens of black-owned businesses and homes were lost when the Trop was built in 1986. Although the team did not exist at that time, Auld said the organization still feels responsibility for the situation, and if the Rays are involved in future development on the Trop site, Auld said the organization would want community benefits agreements “with teeth,” for the African-American community.
Auld was asked what the team’s name would be if it splits its time between two cities.
“I believe in the creativity in our organization. I believe in the creativity embedded in both the Tampa-St. Pete area and the Montreal area. We’re going to be able to figure something out. We’ll find animals with migratory patterns,” he said, sparking laughter, “and we’ll come up with something everyone can embrace. I can’t answer that question today though.”