Rays to explore splitting games with Montreal

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The Tampa Bay Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball’s executive council to explore a plan in which they would play early-season home games in the Tampa Bay area and the remainder of the year in Montreal, commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday.

While the plan is in its nascent stages, the Rays have embraced the two-city solution as the most feasible to saving baseball in the Tampa Bay area after years of failed attempts to build a new stadium in the region, sources said.

Under the plan, the Rays would play in new stadiums in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, sources said. The number of home games each city would receive has not been determined, sources said.

Manfred referred to the idea of a two-city Rays team as a long-term project.

The ability to play games early in the season in Florida would preclude the need for a domed stadium, cutting the cost of a new building.

The return of baseball to Montreal, which lost the Expos when they moved to Washington and became the Nationals before the 2005 season, has long been speculated and has significant support among power brokers in the city, including Stephen Bronfman, the private-equity magnate whose father, Charles, was the Expos’ original owner.

A month ago, Bronfman — who along with Montreal businessman Mitch Garber has expressed interest in taking a minority stake in the Rays, alongside owner Stuart Sternberg — reached an agreement with a developer on a site in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood to potentially build a new stadium.

“My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come,” Sternberg said via statement. “I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration.”

Significant hurdles remain for the plan to take root, sources said. Though two cities sharing a team isn’t entirely novel — the Expos played 22 home games in Puerto Rico in 2003, and Kansas City, Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraska, split home games with the NBA’s Kings in the 1970s — the viability of long-term success remains in question.

MLB’s executive council, which includes Sternberg, nevertheless gave the Rays permission to explore the possibility during owners meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

For more than a decade, the Rays have sought to build a new stadium in Tampa or St. Petersburg, Florida, where they currently play at Tropicana Field. Their lease runs through 2027, and a Tampa Bay-Montreal dual-city plan would necessitate finding a stadium site in Florida as well. The timetable for any potential move likely depends on whether the Rays can strike a deal in the Tampa Bay area for a new stadium, sources said.

The Rays’ average attendance of 14,546 is the second lowest in the majors despite a 43-31 record. Their Opening Day payroll of around $65 million was among the lowest in baseball. Among the difficulty in securing a new stadium, a paucity of local revenue and a poor local-television deal, the Rays have been seen by other cities as a target for relocation — a possibility should the Tampa Bay-Montreal plan fail.

A deal with Montreal would keep the Rays in Florida while potentially adding significant revenues to the franchise. Montreal offers a robust corporate base for sponsorships and a fervent fan base that could support what would amount to a half-season ticket plan. Other teams could object to the Rays occupying two geographical territories, though the support of the executive council to explore the possibility, sources said, constituted a significant step forward.

It is too early in the process, sources said, to answer such questions as what the name of the team would be or where playoff games would be held.

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