How Would the Rays Splitting Time Between Tampa and Montreal Actually Work?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2019

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell reacts during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Can Florida and Canada share an MLB franchise? We might find out, but it's going to get bumpy.

On Thursday, Major League Baseball granted the Tampa Bay Rays permission to explore the idea of calling both Tampa and Montreal home.

It's far from a done deal and is fraught with issues. But it's officially on the table.

The Rays are 29th in attendance this season with an average of 14,545 fans per game, ahead of only their in-state counterparts, the Miami Marlins.

Yet while the Marlins are in last place in the National League East, the Rays are fresh off a 90-win season and currently hold the American League's top wild-card position.

Does Tampa's greater population care enough about its small-market overachievers? It's an open question, but signs point to no.

Here's how MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred described the situation to reporters:

"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. There is no commitment on the part of the owners to ultimately approve a plan. The permission that was granted was simply a permission to explore this alternative in an effort to strengthen a franchise that's performed great on the field but continues to be pretty limited from an economic perspective."

Is this two-location notion the answer? There are major hurdles, to say the least.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Rays have an agreement to remain at Tropicana Field through 2027. Voiding that pact would require approval from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. 

"Ultimately, such a decision is up to me," Kriseman told reporters. "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."

Rays outfielder Tommy Pham was equally skeptical in his remarks to reporters.

"I was like, 'Is this a joke?'" Pham said. "You know, but, April Fools' was months ago, so it's shocking all of us."

Naysayers aside, it's worth asking: How would this arrangement actually work?

According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the tentative plan is for the Rays to play roughly two-and-a-half months in Tampa, or around 35 home games, to start the season. They'd then fly north and play another 46 or so home games in Montreal.

"The Rays can pay the players for the inconvenience," Topkin noted, "similar to the stipends they get for taking international trips, and as part of a compensation package that also could offset other issues such as taxes, currency exchange (though they're paid in U.S. dollars) and family travel costs."

There is precedent: In 2003 and 2004, the Montreal Expos played 22 home games in Puerto Rico. Attendance ticked upward, but it also preceded the Expos' move to Washington, D.C., in 2005, where they would become the Nationals.

TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE/Associated Press

Are the Rays trying the same ployasking for a split season with their eyes on a new city? Or are they trying to leverage a new stadium? By threatening a timeshare, could the Rays coerce either Montreal or Tampa to build a shiny new facility?

Superagent Scott Boras believes that's the endgame.

"It's a very interesting concept to force one city or the other to build a stadium rapidly, which I think is the real idea behind it all," Boras said, per Topkin.

The Rays' sparse attendance is tough, but the logistics of this proposal will be tougher.

Asking players to juggle their lives between two countries. Expecting a pair of cities to potentially construct new stadiums but get only half of their franchise's home games. Hoping Tampa officials let the team out of its Tropicana commitment despite discouraging words from the mayor.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

These are gargantuan hurdles to clear. They might make this whole gambit a non-starter. Yet as Manfred told reporters, "any outcome is possible."

Despite the backlash, this is an interesting concept. As we saw with the Toronto Raptors' 2019 NBA Finals victory, Canadians have a healthy appetite for U.S. sports. Canada already has the Toronto Blue Jays, but another big league club could draw robust interest north of the border.

"You hear the passion from the fans there, that when the Expos played there, you recognize that they're in the mix now, there's been a lot of talks," Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters. "I think baseball wants to go where baseball's wanted."

Can Florida and Canada share an MLB franchise? Stay tuned.  

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