Late last week, press reports said that the geniuses who run MLB agreed to allow the folks who own and run the Tampa Bay Rays to explore the possibility of having the team split its home games between two cities – Tampa and Montreal – starting sometime in the next 5 years or so. [Aside: If there were ever to be a Tampa-Montreal team, then to pay homage to the old Montreal Expos, the new team should definitely be called the Montreal-Tampa X-Rays or even the Montreal-Tampa Ex-Rays.] Lest anyone be unclear at this point regarding my position on this idea, let me be as candid as I can:
- In the Pantheon of Stupid Ideas related even tangentially to baseball, this belongs right next to the idea of naming José Canseco the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
- If I were to challenge you to come up with a dumber idea than this one, you might need 72 hours of sleep deprivation to meet that challenge.
This idea is so lame that I have to think that it is out there merely as a stalking horse for some other concept that will – at some future point – emerge as an alternate to this split-city entity and will necessarily seem to be a significantly better idea. After all, MLB is a gigantic commercial enterprise with annual revenues in the range of $9-10B; the people who run that sort of enterprise cannot be such dolts lest the enterprise be in danger of imminent collapse.
I have no difficulty at all understanding why the Rays’ owners want to have some elasticity in the locale of their franchise; the fact remains that the Rays’ home attendance is embarrassingly small when the team is good and vanishingly small when the team is not so good. The Rays suffer from a double-whammy here:
- Tampa/St. Petersburg is a small market to begin with.
- Within that small market, there are not a lot of dedicated fans who show up regularly to see the team play.
The reality is that the Rays home attendance this year is smaller than the average attendance for 28 of the 30 NBA teams last year. That is what I mean by home attendance being “embarrassingly small”. Remember, the Rays won 90 games last year and are in second place in the AL East at this very moment.
I understand the ownership’s motivation and I even agree with it. I have said here before that I think MLB should abandon the Tampa/St. Petersburg market – along with the Miami market but that is another story – and relocate the Rays. However, the idea of two home cities is not the answer. [Foreshadowing: I will provide my answer to this situation later in this piece.]
Let me try to unwrap some of the issues/challenges here:
- Some people say the Rays cannot draw crowds because their stadium is either poorly located or is a dump – – or both. I have never been inside Tropicana Field so I will not pretend to know the conditions there. I have driven by the facility on the Interstate and I can say that it has easy access from that Interstate but is – by no means – located in a population center where folks can “walk to the ballpark”.
- My personal opinion is that the reason there is a franchise in that area at all is that putting a team there precluded a lawsuit against MLB. At one point in history, the White Sox flirted with the good folks on the Gulf Coast of Florida and then jilted those folks when new stadium money became available in Chicago. Folks in Tampa threatened a lawsuit; MLB responded with a search for expansion franchise locations and – SURPRISE – Tampa won one of those expansion franchises. The fact is that the franchise was crippled by its home venue from day one.
- In addition to being a small market to begin with, Tampa/St. Petersburg is not a part of the country where there is a concentration of wealth or a concentration of commercial interests that can support a baseball team by attaching to it. Ironically, that is a similar situation to the one that existed in Montreal where the Expos existed off the largess of the Bronfman family until they lost interest leaving the team in a situation where it was abandoned and run by MLB itself. The big difference between the Montreal small market and the Tampa small market is that the Expos were able to draw crowds until such time as the facility there became “alienating”.
Until recently, the Tampa owners were trying to work with the politicos in Tampa/St Petersburg to get a new stadium built in “downtown Tampa”. Earlier this year, they announced that they had abandoned that idea. Might this trial balloon be a way to re-ignite such an effort? I would not be surprised if that were the case. I would also not be surprised if the folks who run the cities and counties that comprise the Tampa/St. Petersburg area do not fall all over themselves to find public monies to build a new playpen for the Rays.
And that would seem to go double for the good folks in Montreal. Those folks in Quebec spent 30 years paying off the bonds they floated to host the 1976 Olympic Games and saw first-hand that the purported long-term benefits of spending tax dollars on sports facilities do not come close to what proponents suggest they will be. Olympic Stadium turned into the home field for the Montreal Expos and the facility was a mess during the last decade or so that the Expos used it up to the time when they decamped for Washington DC. That was at the end of 2004; only in some fairy tale world would that stadium have improved in the intervening years with the benign neglect that it has received. It would likely take a couple hundred million dollars to upgrade that facility and I just cannot see the people in Quebec and/or Montreal jumping at the chance to get themselves back into debt to acquire a part-time baseball team.
There is another issue to consider here and that is the effect such a split-season existence might have on the team itself. Tampa – because of its small market status – is not one of the spendthrift teams in MLB. According to spotrac.com, the Rays had the lowest Opening Day payroll in MLB this year at $48M for 25 players. Obviously, the team has not been “a player” when it comes to courting any of the top-shelf free agents over the past few years. Nonetheless, a split-season would have to make signing free agents even more difficult for the team:
- Players with families would need two residences – or have a single residence in one venue with a rental in the other. Players’ wives do not have a union to represent their interests here, but wives everywhere do have ways to let their husbands know what is a good living situation, and what is not a good living situation.
- The currently situated Rays do have one nice advantage to hold out in any sort of free agent discussions. The State of Florida has no state level income tax; that means players can keep more of their contract dollars in their pockets. Montreal has an income tax. Therefore, whatever portion of players’ salaries that are earned there will be taxed there; that means players will keep less of their contract dollars in their pockets.
[Aside: The choice of Montreal as the theoretical co-home for the Rays is ironic. In the last couple of years of the Expos’ existence, the team there tried something similar playing a couple dozen games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That did not work either…]
Earlier on, I promised that I would offer up a solution to this problem. I believe that the Rays are contractually obligated to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg until 2027. As of that date, the Rays can and should move away from that area and just admit that it was a bad place for an MLB team from the get-go. MLB should make it clear that this team is ready to negotiate its long-term future with other venues in the US that would like MLB to be part of the community. And here is the first locale that I would contact and the one that I would focus my greatest effort on:
- The Research Triangle Area in North Carolina
Here are some of the reasons that would be my new home for the Rays:
- Yes, it is a small market as compared to places like Atlanta and Charlotte in the same general vicinity, but it is an area where people do have disposable income and have an interest in sports and their teams.
- It is far enough away from both Atlanta to the south and from Washington DC to the north to have a minimal impact on team support for either the Braves or the Nats.
- Corporate/commercial interests in the Research Triangle Area are in place and may be enticed to align with and support the Rays in that area.
- Minor league baseball has been a staple in the sports calendar for people in North Carolina for decades.
The Rays are – barring some sort of Divine intervention – going to be in Tampa/St. Petersburg for the next 8.5 seasons. That should be plenty of time to work out the details of where they will move and how they will finance the construction of a new stadium wherever that is. The NFL has a “building fund”; if MLB does not have one, they ought to move quickly to establish one and finding a new home for the Rays should be its big priority.
Finally, the governance and the strategic thinking for MLB is obviously a male-dominated situation. That fact juxtaposed with the existence of this latest “new idea” on how to resolve the Rays’ attendance woes brings to mind a statement made by Julie Foudy, former star on the US Women’s’ National Soccer Team. This is a paraphrase because I cannot find a link to the exact statement:
“Girls are willing to admit that they can’t do something and then don’t try to do it. Boys, on the other hand, tend to go for it – even when it is probably a bad idea.”
Vive la difference!
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………