Two Cities, One Team: How Should the Rays Move Forward?

Should baseball return to Montreal, *sort of*?

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Tim Raines at Olympic Stadium, 1982 / Focus On Sport / Getty Images

While revenues rise across the MLB, the league faces complex challenges in the near future. For one, the game has a marketing problem, something a revamped All-Star Game voting process has failed to rectify. While lucrative TV deals have lined owners’ pockets for years to come, and ensure a top-of-the-line broadcast product, attendance at games is declining. A players’ union revolt seems increasingly likely. If MLB is going to survive in a sports landscape where personalities drive audiences, they’re going to have to get pretty creative. 

Luckily, MLB looks like it’s prepared to. Last week, commissioner Rob Manfred gave the Tampa Bay Rays permission to explore a partial relocation to Montreal, where half of the Rays’ home games would happen in Canada, and the other half would happen in St. Petersburg. There has been some fallout; the prospect of a new Rays stadium seems stuck in purgatory, and St. Petersburg’s mayor has said the city wouldn’t fund a new facility if the tenants were part-timers. “We’re looking for open minds,” said Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, hopefully.

The Rays rank second-to-last in attendance, well short of the MLB average of 27,000. Part of that is due to the decaying Tropicana Field, an indoor park in a city where the population is rapidly growing. While the team has had plenty of on-field success—books have been written about their influence—it hasn't been improving the financial portrait of the team. It makes sense that the MLB, having just seen the Toronto Raptors' finals broadcasts shatter Canadian broadcasts records, would want to explore having a bigger footprint in Canada. 

Manfred's support, through this lens, feels obvious: Of course, he's open to exploring revenue opportunities, especially given that the Rays' current rights deal is also poised to underwhelm. The players’ union would still need to approve a move—I can't anticipate that Rays players love the idea of two home cities, but crazier things have happened—and there's a growing sense that players will find out how to get a bigger share of the rights revenue pie. Exploring a Tampa Bay/Montreal experiment seems like a step in the right direction for baseball, even though big obstacles are ahead

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