Tampa Bay Rays Split-Season Pursuit Could Lead Rowdies to Tampa

Al Lang Field, Tampa Bay Rowdies

A Tampa Bay Rays proposal to split a regular season between Tampa and Montreal could involve the USL Championship Tampa Bay Rowdies, with the club pitched as part of a potential facility plan in Tampa.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who took office earlier this year, has taken a larger role in ballpark talks with the Rays, meeting informally with the Rays’ Brian Auld and Matt Silverman. And while the talks have been unofficial, they are a response to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman saying he had no interest in having the Rays play only half a season at Tropicana Field until the lease expires at the end of 2027. With the Rays increasingly committed to an unprecedented split season and Castor expressing interest in a new Tampa multiuse facility – especially with the Rowdies being part of the mix, and potentially a commitment to a redevelopment of Al Lang Stadium (above) as a spring-training venue, its original use – there could be some possibilities for the Rays in Tampa. And that could mean a new venue that accommodates the Rowdies as well: the Rays purchased the USL Championship team in October 2018From the Tampa Bay Times:

“When I first heard of it — just immediately — it’s like ‘that makes no sense.’ But if you look at it from the perspective of baseball, the in-person attendance is dropping nationwide while TV is going up. When people are watching baseball on TV, they could have the two media contracts. And then you don’t have 81 games, which is difficult for even the most hardcore baseball fans to attend. So, you know, let them explore it. It’s something new,” Castor said Wednesday in an interview in her office….

The Rays have told her they’d like to have a stadium built by 2025, she said.

“This right now is just in pencil and notepad stage,” Castor said. “So it’s just going to take so much more negotiating and data crunching and, you know, looking at the possibilities.”

The issue will be putting together a ballpark deal with plenty of moving parts. A new ballpark in Tampa, even a $500-million open-air ballpark sans a retractable roof, will require buy-in from Hillsborough County and some imaginative financing. It will also need buy-in from St. Petersburg and probably Pinellas County, especially if an overhaul of Al Lang Stadium is part of any plan. And, of course, preliminary plans for a new Montreal ballpark need to move forward. So, we’re talking multiple city, state, provincial, county and perhaps even national bodies all in agreement on a multi-ballpark plan. Nothing daunting about that.

In this particular instance, the Rays probably have a little more power over the proceedings than folks assume: the team’s Tropicana Field lease also gives the team a say in how the 85-acre site is developed. The city has approached Tropicana Field development in two different ways—with and without a new ballpark—but encompassing the same theme: Using the land to create a new gateway to downtown St. Pete. Auld, in an interview with St. Pete Catalyst, reinforced the point that the team wants to see the Trop site developed sooner than later:

“It’s difficult to see a way that makes sense to start developing that 85-acre parcel in a coherent manner if you don’t know if, when and how long the team is going to be there,” Auld said. “Given that we continue to believe the Tropicana Field site is a very viable site for the team, we don’t want to hamstring our ability to make it a great home for us down the road.”

Auld took issue with the idea that the Rays offered the split season as a leverage play. The team essentially is a free agent in 2028, he said, and could get much more of an upper hand by simply saying it wouldn’t be playing in the Tampa-St. Pete area after 2027.

Instead, the Rays have gone through difficult negotiating processes locally and with Major League Baseball to try to make the sister city concept work.

“We believe in this. We think it’s a great solution that gives us the possibility of putting a much higher payroll on the field year in and year out and allows us to be a competitive market in the big leagues in a way that there’s no other solution to,” he said.

The Rays, who purchased the Rowdies from businessman Bill Edwards prior to the club’s 2019 season, received permission from Major League Baseball earlier this year to pursue a split-season arrangement between the Tampa Bay and Montreal markets. As Castor noted, the Rays would like to see a new split-ballpark plan launch in 2025. We’re on the verge of 2020—which means this coming year will be a key one in laying the groundwork for an international solution that could ultimately have implications on the Rowdies.

Image courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies.

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