For many, the idea of franchised sports can be confusing. If you look outside the United States (US), in places such as Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom, sports teams are based in a single location, and usually named after it too. Sure, they may move stadiums to new facilities, but they always stay in the home town where they are based. But with franchised sports in the US with teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays, that isn’t always the case.
That’s because the Rays are the franchise, Tampa Bay is just where they are currently based and the only reason the location is included in their name. That very same franchise could well move to Cincinnati, and the team would just change their name to the Cincinnati Rays. And for fans outside the US, it just seems crazy to think that a team you may have supported for 30-40 years, could just up and move halfway across the country.
That’s just the way it is though, and so fans of the MLB will be familiar with this concept. They’ll also be familiar with the concept of teams being split between two towns. Something that the Tampa Bay Rays’ owners have been working on for the past two and a half years. With plans primarily approved in 2019 for the idea of a split season with half a season played in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a “Sister City” in Montreal, Canada, hosting the other half.
However, those plans, for which the owners of the Rays have worked so hard to put in place, were put to a stop this week, to the disappointment of team president Brian Auld. “We put everything we had into this effort because we truly believed in it – we thought it was great for the Rays, for our players, for Major League Baseball, for Montreal and Tampa Bay. And to have the rug pulled out from under us like this is extraordinarily disappointing”.
But why was this move being planned anyway? What were the benefits to the Rays and would this have meant a full relocation further down the line? Let’s take a little look and try to answer some of those questions.
Why was this move planned?
There were a number of reasons as to why the move was proposed, one of the main ones being money. Falling attendance numbers over recent years, which was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, were a big reason, as it was leading to a fall in match day revenues. And at the end of the day, MLB franchises are businesses, so if they’re not making money, or maximizing their revenue, then there needs to be change.
Having a split season could have well resolved that, because it opens up a second city to build a fan base. Two lots of fans means the potential for increased jersey sales. It could also have benefited the two cities in terms of tourism as well, with fans potentially traveling to watch games in their sister city.
There could also be a possibility of more revenue with additional advertising opportunities as well, with an expanded target market now crossing the US and Canada. Especially with how the betting industry is now opening up more in North American sports as both countries see the legalization of wagering on sports becoming more common.
We’re talking about partnerships and sponsorships. Sportsbooks are becoming exclusive partners, so they can say how their online betting sites have picks and odds for the Tampa Bay Rays. They’re also buying up sponsorship space in and around stadiums, and who knows, we could soon see them on jerseys too like they have in other sports around the world, like in the English Premier League.
It wasn’t all about money though. There were also concerns around the stadium. There was news broken years ago in 2018, regarding the funding of a new stadium, with it being part-funded by taxpayers. However, you then have issues of whether you build an entirely new one, renovate the old one, and when you do it without causing too much of an impact to the team and fans. And having a split-season would help alleviate some of those problems, by buying more time with a semi-relocation.
It was never about relocating
One thing it wasn’t about though, apparently, was to move towards a full relocation, according to principal owner Stuart Sternberg. He expressed disappointment in the news that the MLB rejected their plans for a split season over two cities, whilst stating he wanted the team to also remain in the Tampa bay area for many more years.
Statement from the Tampa Bay Rays regarding Sister City Baseball plan: pic.twitter.com/N9tA1CTeED— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) January 20, 2022
However, this move by the MLB could actually increase the chance of a permanent move away from Tampa Bay. “We’re certainly going to be exploring things in the Tampa Bay region. I’ve said since I’ve owned the team, for 17 years, that our goal has been to keep it here for generations and generations”, said Sternberg. “We felt that this was a much better approach and something that ensured that it would work. We will see how the stands look this year and the support we get, and that’s going to help inform us as well going forward on our plans”.
Whilst he hasn’t said outright that this will mean a relocation in full, it does hint that the option of staying permanently in Tampa Bay will be discussed now. And if it isn’t feasible business-wise to keep the franchise in Florida, then a full on move is the more likely option, rather than keeping a team somewhere that it just ends up hemorrhaging money.
From what officials of the franchise have said, they are upset with the decision, but this isn’t the end of the matter. They will be looking into other options going forward. This could be good and bad news. Fans who weren’t a fan of the idea could keep their team longer as it seems for now the Rays are staying in Tampa Bay, however, if attendance doesn’t improve, it could also lead to a permanent move away.