How do you say “Let’s get weird” in French? ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported Thursday afternoon that the Tampa Bay Rays have sought and received permission from MLB’s executive council to explore a plan that would involve turning the club into a de facto two-city team, playing early-season games in Tampa Bay and late-season games in Montreal.
This is a truly absurd and shocking proposal, the likes of which MLB hasn’t seen since 2003, when the ailing Montreal Expos played 22 home games in Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, while the team was in the process of moving from Quebec to Washington. But even that was always intended as a temporary measure, not a permanent two-city arrangement. This Rays idea is like an expanded version of the NFL sending the Jacksonville Jaguars to London once a year.
About 10 minutes into exploring this idea, the Rays will discover, if they haven’t already, an avalanche of practical obstacles. But there’s a certain romance to this idea, so let’s take a moment to dream before bringing the whole idea crashing back to earth.
Expos nostalgia sprouted up not long after the team left Montreal in 2005. The Expos’ distinctive logo became a favorite of baseball hipsters; in 2014, the Blue Jays began playing preseason games in Olympic Stadium, which has turned into an annual bonanza; and in 2015, Jonah Keri’s history of the Expos, Up, Up, and Away, became an international bestseller. Under this plan, Canadian businessman Stephen Bronfman, whose father, Charles, was the Expos’ founding owner, would buy a minority stake in the Rays. Having the Bronfman family attached only ratchets up the nostalgia factor.
The failure of baseball in Montreal now represents a missed opportunity; as small-market teams struggle to compete, Montreal’s metro area of more than 4 million inhabitants sits without a team, while Canada, a nation of 37 million, has had to make do with just one MLB team. Taking major league baseball out of Montreal also left Quebec without a club, stifling the unique French-speaking baseball culture, which despite being smaller than the English-, Spanish-, or Japanese-speaking baseball constituencies, is no less distinct.
Of all the markets MLB could send a team to, Montreal carries a special romance, for linguistic, cultural, and historical reasons, and most pie-in-the-sky expansion or realignment plans feature a team in Montreal as a result. Montreal is baseball’s one that got away and carries the attendant longing for a second chance.
A timeshare idea is also fun to consider because it’s so weird. MLB is a fundamentally conservative institution, both because of organized baseball’s love of its own sepia-toned history, and because gigantic, multibillion-dollar enterprises with federated power bases tend to move slowly. And if this plan comes to fruition, it won’t be for many years. But having the Rays split time between their divorced parents, like a latter-day version of Philip Roth’s Ruppert Mundys, is a bold, shocking, seemingly un-focus-grouped idea. It upsets the foundational American sports concept of major league teams belonging to one city at a time.
Baseball—well, American society in general, but particularly baseball—needs more weird, off-the-wall, half-baked brainstormed ideas, not fewer. There has never been a worse time to have one’s imagination stifled by orthodoxy.
With that said, a Rays timeshare is a very bad idea and will not happen.
First, and most importantly, the Rays’ lease of Tropicana Field runs through 2027, and the city of St. Petersburg, which owns the facility, won’t let the Rays break the lease. Hours after the plan was first floated, St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman announced that he wouldn’t even consider canceling or altering the Rays’ lease in order to allow them to explore playing games in Montreal. That effectively closes the book on this idea until 2028.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s consider the additional obstacles to a time-sharing agreement, should Kriseman change his mind. This isn’t just a two-city arrangement, it’s a two-country arrangement. If MLB wanted a team to split time between Tampa and St. Petersburg, or even Chicago and Milwaukee, that’d be one thing. A part-time residency in Montreal would require miles of red tape for club employees. Any multicity proposal would therefore be met with pushback from the MLBPA. Players would have to maintain two homes; some MLB players already do, and indeed many live in the Tampa Bay area in the offseason, but it’d still be a huge cost, in money and aggravation, for whoever’s unfortunate enough to land on the Franken-Rays.
Imagine trying to attract free agents to a team with the caveat that they’d either have to live apart from their families for half of their previously scheduled home games, or move their kids through two school systems each year. Now, the Rays traditionally avoid this issue by not pursuing free agents, or players old enough to have school-aged children, but 25-year-olds making the league minimum might have a hard time financing a second or third home in a city as expensive as Montreal. That goes double for team employees—PR staff, trainers, clubhouse managers, front office analysts, even coaches—who make a pittance compared to the players, and without whom the team wouldn’t be able to operate.
How would this two-city team decide which city gets to host playoff games? How would it affect broadcast rules—would the team be able to finagle full-season TV deals in both cities, and if so, what would the MLB.tv blackout rules look like?
Most importantly, where the hell would this team play? Between Montreal and Tampa Bay, there are zero attractive MLB-caliber stadiums. The Rays are drawing just 14,545 fans per game this year, 29th in MLB and not much more than what LSU’s baseball team draws. Rays ownership has been agitating for a new government-funded ballpark for years on the basis that Tropicana Field is a hideously dreary, fin de siècle relic situated in the middle of nowhere. Which it is. But Olympic Stadium in Montreal is another aging dome far from downtown, with its own history of structural issues, and there’s no other vacant MLB-quality stadium in either city.
That means that a Tampa-Montreal joint custody agreement would require not one brand-new, taxpayer-funded ballpark, but two. Now the plan makes sense. For decades, professional sports teams could make easy paydays at will by threatening to leave their home city and pressuring the local government into footing most or all of the bill for a new stadium.
This is a grift, and it’s been going on long enough that there’s now a robust body of social science research demonstrating that public funding for sports arenas offers negligible economic value for the community, while transferring hundreds of millions of dollars directly from taxpayers to billionaire team owners. In spite of this overwhelming body of evidence, some clubs have been able to forum-shop until they find a local government stupid and/or thirsty enough to bite (cf. the Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County), but public stadium financing is a scam that’s running out of marks, rapidly.
So if Bronfman (who, nostalgia aside, is a private equity investor working with inherited wealth) and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg (late of Goldman Sachs) think they can find not just one sucker in local government, but two, and in two countries, more power to them. Particularly when these local governments would be paying full freight for a stadium that lies vacant for half the home slate. I’m not holding my breath.
The lack of stadium financing will probably sink this deal—if the Rays were able to get the local government to fund a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area, they’d just do it, without asking for an open relationship with their mysterious (and maybe not quite real) Canadian suitor. Likewise if Montreal were willing to provide the Rays with a free ballpark, they’d just move there full time. Like so many other fun, unexpected ideas, like self-driving cars and space tourism, this international Rays timeshare is fun to think about. But in substance, it looks like nothing more than a scam perpetrated by finance bros against the public. C’est la vie.