Finally getting my thoughts down about the Rays Sister City presentation at the Cafe Con Tampa meeting at Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa on October 1, 2021. This may be a long read, so you are warned. Feel free to screenshot, and use an image, but like the issue itself, my thoughts are best understood in full context.
In attendance were business leaders, politicians, fans, and media. I recognized Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times and JP Peterson of his radio show. There was also Spectrum News and other television networks. The MC of the event was Del Acosta.
Here is Rays President Brian Auld's 11 minute presentation. This was the only part of the morning that was allowed to be video recorded. As per the Cafe con Tampa rules, videoing in the Q&A was discouraged. If you haven't seen it, I recommend watching before you read on. Here is the link if you are on mobile: “One Team Two Cities --The Tampa Bay Rays Sister City Plan” Brian Auld, President, Tampa Bay Rays.
I liked how Brian said this issue is not ideal for discussing on social media or in sound bytes. I agreed with that 100%. It is complicated. I have been writing about it for years.
The following is my perception and an attempt to take apart the Rays Sister City argument. For those new to my work, I have been a loud opponent of the Rays Sister City plan since Day 1.
Talking to Their Target
There are three stakeholders in the Rays stadium saga: politicians, business leaders, and fans.
Friday's presentation was for business leaders and politicians. City council members, lobbyists, lawyers, and prominent business leaders were in attendance. The presentation was geared to them. It was slick, shined, and practiced. Auld spoke about revenue streams, costs and the potential for increased business relationships and tourism. Among the supporters of the idea was Richard Gonzmart of the Colombia Restaurant Group, who added the potential for flights from Tampa to Montreal.
(If you don't know who Richard Gonzmart is, he is a BIG DEAL. Click for is his bio. That the Rays have him in their corner supporting the Montreal plan is a significant win for them.)
Many business leaders don't care about baseball games. They don't care about wins or losses on the emotional level. They don't wear Rays hats to sports bars, or bring their families for a night out at the ballpark. The only reason they go to games is to hobknob and make deals in luxury boxes. They care about how partnering with the team can make them more money.
Politicians also don't care about wins and losses on an emotional level. They are also not going to games for recreation. They care about the image of the city. Champa Bay is a huge hook to hang their marketing and sales pitch on. It doesn't matter if the team plays one or 100 games in Tampa Bay. If they are champions and the name "Tampa Bay" is attached, politicians will attach their efforts to it.
So if the business leaders are on board because they see dollars, and the politicians are on board because the Rays are asking for less money and the team might make the area more attractive, then where does that leave the fans?
The Rays Failure for Fans
The Rays don't have a pitch for the fans. The Rays seem to believe they don't need one. They think they can get the Sister City done without engaging the fans. And technically, on paper, they can. They need money and they need political support. As HeroHabit recently wrote in a post about the Oakland A's stadium/relocation situation, "The fans don’t get a vote in the matter so it doesn’t make any difference if they have five million fans or five thousand fans."
If there was a popular referendum on the Sister City plan, my guess is that it would fail spectacularly. But the Rays don't need a vote because they aren't a government entity, even if by their name they do represent the Tampa Bay region. They can do whatever they can afford. That's important to remember.
The Rays also don't understand how fans think. Under the Sister City plan, the Rays want the same amount of fans who go to 81 games in Tampa Bay to go to 40 games. Increasing attendance isn't done by decreasing games, it's done by increasing fans.
(And don't get me started on Brian Auld's mention that people travel all summer and would rather go to North Carolina than a baseball game in St. Pete. Or that any significant amount of fans will travel to Montreal to see the Rays. That just shows who the presentation is geared for. Hint: not the regular fan.)
As proven by the harsh reaction to the Sister City sign the Rays planned to put in the outfield during the playoffs, the fanbase will react negatively to the idea of losing games to Montreal. Especially if all Tampa Bay gets is the beginning of the season - the Rays typically lowest attended and watched games.
I have no doubt season ticket sales will drop. If corporations buy seats, few Rays fans will take their company's tickets. The negative feeling of betrayal may possibly negate the increased revenue of a new stadium, making a new stadium worthless to the Rays and a financial burden on the City of Tampa.
The Rays have proven to be poor at getting the Tampa Bay area excited about Rays baseball. Notice how few gigantic banners support the Rays versus how many support the Lightning or Bucs. It will take a herculean marketing effort to get fans excited in a team after taking 40 games from them. The fanbase does not buy that the Sister City plan is the only way to keep baseball in Tampa Bay. Not with NHL, NFL, four spring training teams, four minor league teams, soccer, and a successful Major League team already in the area. No one believes the Rays are not profitable. Billionaires don't continue to own assets that lose money.
Loans and Leases
Brian Auld was asked what will prevent Stu Sternberg from selling the team and the team being eventually moved to Montreal fulltime. According to Brian, there will be an lock-tight agreement between the Rays and the City of Tampa that will prevent the team from moving.
Of course, the last time Stu Sternberg faced a legal agreement that mandated his location, he went behind everyone's back and negotiated for a move, albeit partial. Legal agreements are only as good as their enforcement and Stu Sternberg has shown he doesn't care about agreements with our region. There is nothing preventing him from selling in 2032 to the Montreal group. Then what happens?
I do believe Brian Auld, Rafaela Fink, and other Rays front office folks love Tampa Bay. I do believe they enjoy living here and enjoy being part of our community. However, I also believe Stu Sternberg does not care about this community one bit. Living here is temporary for him and once he sells the team, he is gone. He has done nothing for this community - more on that later.
Brian Auld also mentioned the Rays don't want to be in the red moving into a new home. This means they don't want to pay a mortgage - they claim this will hurt the on the field product. But shouldn't a new stadium bring in increased income? If the Rays can't maintain their same payroll and use the new park revenue to pay off the ballpark, that's not our problem. That's theirs. Again, they should be able to build more relationships with local businesses and fans. But their behavior over the years has poisoned that water. They don't see their failure to drum up corporate support in 2018 as their fault, they see it as the fault of the region. Then why don't similar sized markets have the same problem?
Yes, they will have to take out a loan. Yes, they can't leverage the value of the team to buy a stadium. But there is an expected revenue gain from new stadium ticket sales - both corporate and individual - as well as many other revenue streams that open with a new stadium. They can also steal advertisers from the Yankees and their organization.
(No one has yet mentioned how that relationship will work. If they move to Ybor, the Rays will essentially be in the Yankees market. They will have to negotiate for the Tarpons lost revenue. Perhaps the Rays know negotiating with the Yankees will not be cheap.)
Maybe the Rays don't think these streams will be enough. Maybe Stu Sternberg should open his own wallet. Maybe he is not as rich as we think.
The Stu Sternberg Perception Gap
During the presentation, Brian Auld mentioned how good of a boss Stu Sternberg is. He mentioned how Sternberg empowers his employees and encourages outside-the-box decision making. Auld said Sternberg allows the Rays to support movements and social issues and allows employees to get involved in their community. These are all good things.
But the Rays don't understand - or don't care - how Stu Sternberg is perceived by the fanbase. I can't speak for the politicians or business leaders, but the fanbase does not like Stu Sternberg. "Screw Stu", "Sell the Team", and "StuSux" are common refrains. Sternberg is often referred to as one of the worst owners in sports. I personally have written about his bad image for over 10 years. He is not customer friendly and his faux pas have added up. The fanbase thinks of him as a carpetbagging, New York investor who has no interest in Tampa Bay other than to make money and not spend his own.
If the Rays want the fans to have an open mind on the Sister City Plan, Stu Sternberg - not the Rays - needs to fix his perception. Because right now, he is not trusted nor liked. While Jeff Vinik sets an extraordinary high bar for a local sports owner, Stu Sternberg doesn't even clear the lowest bar. The Steinbrenners do more for Tampa Bay than Stu Sternberg.
The Partial Market Argument
If you are looking for a summary, here it is: the Rays goal is to create a Top 10 market by combining two mid-sized markets. They claim Tampa Bay, in its current state, is not capable of supporting Major League Baseball. We are too spread out, we lack major corporations, and our per capita income is too low. All of these are true.
We have also voted down transportation initiatives, protested against increased density, and although small to mid-sized companies are moving here, no major corporation has decided to call Tampa home.
They claim that by adding the power of the Montreal market, the Rays will be able to compete regularly with the Red Sox and Yankees. But don't they already do that now? Their only reason to add a complete additional market is to make more money. An additional TV deal, an additional radio deal, and an additional fanbase. Yes, a combined market would have a better chance of signing Wander Franco to a 20-year, billion dollar contract. But it is not needed. What is needed is a centralized stadium and a monopoly of baseball interest. The Rays need to be the only baseball option in Tampa Bay. When I was tracking regularly, the Rays only accounted for 50% of total baseball tickets sold in Tampa Bay. 50% of ticket sales went to local spring training and local Minor League Baseball. A Major League team cannot succeed with this level of competition. Especially if it plays in a bad location.
I would also like to see how the Rays rated all available markets. Why Montreal? What makes Montreal a part-time market? Does MLB think it is unable to sustain a full-time team? How do the Rays and MLB rate other markets?
Why not look to the east to the biggest US market without any baseball? Orlando is completely untapped. Rays fans might not mind splitting the team with a city an hour away. Granted, that would mean only one TV deal. But expanding to the Orlando market would add 2 million people to the Rays fan pool. Outside of a few exhibitions at Disney in 2008, the Rays have completely neglected Orlando.
Speaking of TV, Auld's reference to pandemic ratings as evidence fans will watch no matter where the team plays is incredibly unfair. The Rays, Lightning, and Bucs represented Tampa Bay in 2020. We were all in it together, remember? The best thing fans could do was watch as their favorite teams played in "bubbles". Watching sports was a reprieve from the drama of COVID-19. But when the Montreal Rays play on TV, Tampa fans can't attend those games because an ownership group looking for more revenue moved them from our city, not because of a public health crisis. Huge difference.
Brian Auld mentioned the Rays would like to have 35,000 tickets sold a night. That was the 2019 average of the Houston Astros, who play in a metropolitan area of 6.5 million, or 3.5 million more than Tampa Bay.
I like to compare Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a similar sized metro area with three major sports teams. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates drew nearly 2.5 million fans (2.498). They drew over 35k thirty times. 35,000 times 81 is 2,835,000 fans per year. In 2019, an attendance of 2.8 million would be 10th in Major League Baseball. If that's their goal, that is impossible. There are few untapped metropolitan areas that will get the Rays to that goal.
In 2017, I interviewed Brian Auld for this website. He said the Rays goal was league average. In 2019, league average per game was 28,355. That's 2,296,796 for the season. The Washington Nationals were closest to the average in 2019 with 2,259,781 tickets sold.
Also in 2017, I wrote a post for Fangraphs on whether the Rays could ever reach average attendance. I concluded that the Rays' goal should not be average among MLB, but to be average among similar sized markets - Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle, and Kansas City.
My conclusion was with "a new stadium closer to the center of Tampa Bay’s population, the Rays may be able to sustain or exceed the average small-market attendance. That, along with a new TV contract, would help with revenue and in turn, aid payroll, which may add to talent depth, and possibly equal more wins making the Rays more long-term competitive."
But as mentioned, the Rays goal is not average among small to mid-sized markets. They want to be a Top 10 market by combining the power of the Tampa Bay and Montreal market. Again, they want the same amount of fans to condense their buying habits in half the time. Tampa Bay's 3 million people and Montreal's 4.2 million people does turn the Rays into a large market, if the fans cooperate, which I don't think will happen.
(Personal note, my birthday is in September. If the Rays do the beginning of the season in Tampa and the second half in Montreal, I will never again be able to go to a local ballgame on my birthday. Something I have done for over 30 years. I can't move my birthday to the beginning of the season. I am sure I am not the only one.)
Opening the Pandora's Box of Relocation
If the Rays succeed in splitting their season between Tampa and Montreal, what is preventing Major League Baseball from splitting other cities? What is preventing them from pairing up expansion markets and making a Portland/Nashville team or a Vegas/Charlotte team?
The Rays are often imitated. The Sister City idea sets a very bad precedent for sports geography. If the Rays can get out of having to try harder to make one market work, then why can't other teams move? If they can combine markets for extra revenue, why can't other teams in similar sized markets? Fans and the record books will be confused with the fluidity when other teams will start moving. Imagine the excitement when the Nashville/Pittsburgh Music Pirates play the Vegas/Cleveland Desert Guardians in a World Series that won't be local to half the applicable fanbases.
MLB needs to nip this stupid idea in the bud now before its gets even more stupid.
What Can Fans Do?
The Rays discussion at Cafe con Tampa was insightful not only to get the Rays perspective, but also to show who supports the effort. For example, I mentioned Richard Gonzmart as someone already excited to work with the Sister City plan. Gonzmart owns the Colombia and Ulele. Rays fans could boycott these restaurants or protest outside of them. If the Rays can't be convinced to drop their support for the Sister City plan, perhaps their business partners could be.
Rays fans also need to be seen. Look up these social meetings for Rays appearances. Spread the word, come in with several questions, and ask one or two. Also meet the movers and shakers. Meet Brian Auld and the Rays front office personnel. Do not give a speech that doesn't end with a question. Force the Rays to engage the fans. Be civil and be seen. The more Rays fans are seen asking the Rays tough questions, the more people will see Rays fans standing up for Major League Baseball in the area.
I have been writing about baseball in this area for over a decade. MLB can succeed here if given a chance. The Rays need to either give it a chance or leave completely.