Back six weeks ago when St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was saying it was no big deal if Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg wanted to look at moving his team before his lease expires at the end of 2027 — despite a lease clause explicitly prohibiting that — it looked like Kriseman was all set on playing good cop in the team’s stadium squabble, possibly with an eye toward getting hold of the land under the team’s current home of Tropicana Field. Now not so much, as Kriseman has declared that the Rays leaving before 2027 is something up with which he will not put:
Kriseman told city council members in a letter that negotiations over the Rays’ pitch to split the season between St. Petersburg and Montreal have concluded. The mayor added that team officials declined a new offer to renew the memo of understanding that would’ve allowed the team to explore a future full-time stadium in the Tampa Bay area — not just in St. Pete or Pinellas County.
My door is open if the Rays want to discuss a new stadium in St. Pete. But we are not a part-time city. We are not a part-time region. We are a Major League community. No one can doubt St. Pete and Tampa Bay's trajectory. #SunShinesHere
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) December 4, 2019
Here’s the full letter from Kriseman, of which the key paragraphs are:
Negotiations between the City of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays Organization related to the ‘shared season’ concept have concluded. Both parties have agreed that the best path forward is to abide by the existing use agreement with the understanding that the agreement allows for the Rays Organization to explore post-2027 split or full season opportunities, both in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.
In accordance with the existing use agreement, should the Rays Organization wish to continue exploration of the shared season concept with Montreal, that exploration must be limited to the 2028 season and beyond.
Okay, so what does this all mean? The Rays’ lease prohibits the team’s owner from so much as talking to other cities about moving any home games out of St. Pete before 2028 — which would rule out the team moving to Tampa across the bay, or moving half its games to Montreal, or anything else that didn’t keep 100% of Rays home games in their current city. But it’s only the move that can’t happen before 2028, not the talks: Thanks to a late amendment to the Rays’ 1996 lease, Sternberg can talk all he want about new stadiums elsewhere, he just can’t do so with a goal of moving there before 2028.
Which, honestly, at this point is pretty unlikely anyway: Neither Tampa nor Montreal nor any other prospective Rays relocation city has anything close to a stadium plan in place, so when you add the time it would take to put financing together to the time it would take to build a whole new ballpark, you’re already about halfway to 2028. All Kriseman has done here is to say to Sternberg, “If you want a new stadium sooner than eight years from now, you’ll have to do so in St. Pete,” which honestly isn’t a terrible use of what leverage he has. (Assuming that keeping the Rays in St. Pete is really what’s best for St. Pete, which given the tremendous public subsidies Sternberg is looking for may not be the case at all.)
It also means that fears that this will immediately drive the Rays out of town — hey there, Tampa Bay Times sports columnist John Romano — are almost certainly overblown, because not allowing the team to leave town until 2028 doesn’t actually make it harder for the team to leave town. Sternberg will now almost certainly continue talks with Montreal and Tampa and anywhere else with an eye toward 2028, but will presumably continue them with St. Petersburg as well — unless he chooses to cut off Kriseman out of spite, which would be a dangerous thing to do in a game with only so many bidders. Sternberg’s calculus remains the same: Stay put in a metro area with a decent-sized media market but a crappy attendance record or relocate to a smaller market (or in Montreal’s case, another decent-sized market with its own historic attendance woes) and roll the dice that this will make you more money.
I expect that Sternberg’s decision, much like the MLB decision that stripped Montreal of the Expos in the first place in 2004, will ultimately have a lot to do with who offers the most lucrative stadium deal, which right now is “nobody.” This Kriseman gambit definitely makes things interesting, but I imagine it’s going to be years before we know how, or if, it affects the Rays’ ultimate fate.