Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Delusionally Doubling Down on the Montreal Plan

Over the last few days, the Tampa Bay Rays front office have released several quotes advocating their "Sister City" plan to divide Major League Baseball between Tampa Bay and Montreal.

It is a stupid, stupid, stupid plan made by a greedy billionaire designed to rip the heart out of the fanbase and prepare them to lose the team forever.

As I have written several times, I disagree with this plan. I have also been on ABC Action News twice discussing my opposition.

From a business perspective, former Wall Street investor Stu Sternberg is attempting to diversify his assets. He figures if he and his Montreal business partners each have to invest less in smaller stadiums in two markets, there is less total financial commitment while receiving increased stadium attendance bumps in two cities. By going international, he also hedges against a US economic decline. There has been much talk that the US economy will eventually recede, and when it does Sternberg will have Canada to buoy his investment.

Stu Sternberg is not increasing his gains enough here in Tampa Bay. Despite franchise value gains of 27% in 2017, 9% in 2018, 12% in 2019 according to Forbes, that is not enough for his Wall Street wallet. He wants to better maximize his investments. This isn't about emotions or people. It is about dollars and gains.

He invests less, makes more, and is covered against a market tightening. What is there not to like from the perspective of a Wall Street investor?

If one billionaire can do it, can others? Where does this split-city plan stop? In his interview with WDAE at Rays Fan Fest, Sternberg mentioned that MLB did not consider Montreal a full-time MLB market. That is the first I have heard that said, and it should be a big deal.

Consider this: Montreal is a city of 4 million people. In 2015, Montreal had a GDP of $193 billion dollars (Tampa Bay had $118 billion). From 1979 to 1983, the Expos were in the top 5 in attendance in the National League. Montreal is a legit city with an international economy and baseball pedigree.

If they don't reach the level of full-time market, who else doesn't? Does Pittsburgh? Milwaukee? Cincinnati? Cleveland? What is the threshold? Because if owners follow the Rays lead and start splitting seasons throughout MLB, the only teams that will be in their cities full-time will be in the mega markets of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Would the Pirates consider moving half their season to Nashville? What about the Indians playing half their games in San Antonio? Could the A's play half their games in Portland? Maybe the Marlins split half their games between Miami and Las Vegas.

Where does this end? What is the threshold of a Major League market if neither Tampa Bay nor Montreal make the cut?

By the way, Tampa Bay is a robust enough market for four Minor League Baseball teams, four Spring Training teams, an NFL team, and NHL team, a major college program, and an XFL team. Montreal has excess economic capacity as it only hosts the Montreal Canadiens and the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League (CFL). But apparently, that is not a enough for a full-time market to Major League Baseball.

Another fallacy in the Sister City argument is that demand is driven by availability. Stu Sternberg and the Rays front office believe they can get the same attendance of 1 million plus fans to Tropicana Field in April, May, and June that they get from April to September because the supply of games is smaller.

There are many reasons why this reduced-supply increased-demand concept isn't realistic.

For one, the Rays will still face an abundance of regional sports competition. If they play in Tampa Bay in the spring, they face competition from four Minor League Baseball teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the new XFL Vipers. As well, many local fans have just spent their money on Spring Training.

Second, traditionally the Rays struggle to draw in the early months of the season, especially in May. May is typically their worst month of the season. People are not yet fully engaged in baseball in May. How do you expect the same type of fanbase excitement in the first half of the season versus the second half? In the first half, teams are still figuring out who they are. There is a saying that baseball teams don't really know what they have until the 1/3 point (54 games) in the season. Will they be contenders? Will they be also-rans? If the Rays play the first three months of the season in Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay will never again experience a pennant race in person.

Third, Stu Sternberg believes the Rays will draw a million people in three months with half a schedule - and maybe less than half the games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and other teams that draw opposing fans. Typically, the Rays play 9 home games each versus the Red Sox and Yankees. What if all 9 games are after June? What if only 3 games versus each are while the Rays are in the bay area? Then the fans in Montreal get to see the Rays top rivals and the fans of Tampa Bay area left with the less appealing part of the schedule.

The Rays cannot expect Major League Baseball to cater the schedule to them and provide them a 50/50 split in opponents for each fan base. And what about interleague rotational games? Fans in Tampa Bay may never get to see players from an interleague team such as the Marlins, Mets, or Cubs play the Rays if those games are always scheduled in the second half of the season.

Fourth and lastly, it is easy to imagine that this arrangement pitting fans and officials of both cities against each other as they will compare and contrast attendance as a measure of what fanbase supports the team more. If Tampa Bay draws less against the Yankees in April (as the Lightning are simultaneously in the playoffs) than Montreal does in September, Tampa Bay fans will probably get mocked. There will be non-stop comparisons as to which city is a better host in the media. Sternberg won't feel this competition as he makes money either way, but the fans and the cities will.

The sister city plan assumes these are loving, cooperating siblings, not competitive, bitter, catty siblings. And if the Montreal team is already saying Montreal is a better city than St. Petersburg, what will they say if the Montreal side of attendance exceeds the Tampa Bay side?

Then again, Sternberg might be the kind of parent who enjoys seeing siblings compete. But the side that has their team ripped from them will not take well to another city saying they are better hosts. There is already a malaise around the Rays. Hearing Montreal boast about being better hosts will only further turn Tampa Bay fans off to the franchise and the arrangement.

Lastly, a huge obstacle to the Rays success in Tampa Bay has always been the presence of the New York Yankees. What if the Rays said they were willing to stay full-time if the city cut their lease with the Yankees? Then Steinbrenner Field could be turned into a larger stadium in a centralized location. The Yankees have enough money to build a new spring training stadium anywhere in the world. The Rays know this, the Yankees know this, the City of Tampa knows this.

But challenging Steinbrenner presence in Tampa is either taboo, forbidden, or never mentioned in public, even though the Yankees have only been playing in Tampa two years more than the Rays have been playing in St Petersburg (1996 to 1998). The City of Tampa loves the Yankees.

By the way, if you haven't read the parody site Tampa News Force article entitled "Tampa Bay Vipers thankful to finally have sports spotlight to themselves", I highly recommended it. It is as much a commentary on the Vipers competition as it is the Rays local competition.
“Spring training starts in a couple of weeks, too”, he continued, as sweat formed on his brow. “I forgot about that. Sure, the Rays train way down in Port Charlotte but three teams, including the New York Yankees, possibly the most prolific and beloved franchises in sports history are right here for over a month, smack in the middle of our season.” He stopped, drew a deep breath and sighed, “The New York Yankees. Not the San Diego Padres or some other godforsaken franchise no one cares about, just the Notre Dame of Major League Baseball, that’s all.”