The Rays have been trapped in an iron clad contract with the City of St. Petersburg since the team's inception, a lease that runs through 2027 and prevents the Rays from looking anywhere outside the city limits for a new stadium location - citing "incalculable damages" if the team left.
With a new deal in hand, that phrasing can be called into question.
In 2013, the City Council considered an amendment to allow the Rays an exploratory fee of $1.42 million per year to look for another stadium location. Facing harsh opposition from then-Mayor Bill Foster, the Council landed in a stalemate vote of 4-4.
Following the denial of this permission, Commissioner Bud Selig promised MLB intervention, and the gears fired up in Montreal to bring baseball back to La Belle Province, a public display of the Rays' possible move out of the bay area.
Meanwhile, at home, Mayor Foster lost re-election to newcomer Rick Kriseman, who used the Rays stadium saga as a platform issue in his campaign. Kriseman promised to find resolution with the team that would benefit both sides, and this morning that promise came to fruition.
As the logic goes, if the Rays planned to leave, allowing them to do so sooner than later allows for re-development of the land including Tropicana Field. Furthermore, an earlier departure would also indicate a higher payout to the city should the team plan to leave either way.
The stage was set for a new deal with the City of St. Petersburg, and after a year of negotiating with Mayor Kriseman, a deal has finally been announced.
The new agreement provides the Rays freedom to explore stadium locations in Hillsborough and Pinellas County, and the price tag for the Rays is staggeringly low. The team would face no cost at looking outside the city for a new stadium location, and pay minimal amounts to St. Pete for each year departed from the contract.
The Memorandum of Understanding lays out the following pay-out structure for each year, should the Rays choose to leave St. Petersburg:
2015 - 2018: $4 million per season, totaling $16 million
This amount is highly unlikely to ever need to be paid by the Rays. Even if a new stadium location was found, purchased, and plans were solidified within a calendar year, the building project could easily require continued efforts through Dec. 2018.
2019 - 2022: $3 million per season, totaling $12 million
2023 - 2026: $2 million per season, totaling $8 million
Practically speaking, the Rays will face a maximum payout of $20 million to be released from their contract with Tropicana Field.
2027: No payout required for the final year of the lease.
Here the City has effectively judged the final year of the Rays' lease with the Rays to be of no value. This is hardly an incalculable damage.
It's worth reiterating that cost would come due should the Rays choose a location anywhere outside the city limits of St. Petersburg, whether that be Hillsborough or Pinellas County.
When the cost of a new stadium could reach $550 million or more, such a low fee is surprising, but the Rays felt the cost could not be prohibitive to the team moving forward toward a new stadium.
In a press conference this afternoon, Kriseman thanked the Rays for their commitment and secrecy. The Mayor noted he believed the freedom to explore would eventually lead the Rays back to St. Petersburg, but will allow the team to make that decision. For his part, regarding the low exit fee from the lease, Mayor Kriseman was quick to note the city had lost the majority of it's negotiating leverage as the contract has neared its end.
The city's priority moving forward will be to conduct studies of the best use of the property for Tropicana Field, with or without the stadium. The Rays next steps will be evaluating the market. The process of selecting a new site for the Rays stadium will likely take months to plan, before specific locations are even considered and appraised.
New Rays president Brian Auld also spoke at the conference, as the last year's lead negotiator. He reiterated the new deal is for the Rays to find the best location in the region, citing a "fresh look" at all locations, a phrase used multiple times.
Auld credited good faith efforts on the behalf of Kriseman, who has had the best interests for the region and the team. "Mayor Kriseman considered our needs while preserving the interests of the people of St Pete."
The deal is still pending City Council approval, and will be a Memorandum of Understanding, not an amendment to the contract.
The full Memo can be read below:
Questions that remain to be answered include how much money the Rays have available to contribute toward a new stadium, and where that new location will be.
In 2008, the Rays made strides to build a new stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront, but were denied by the City Council.
Once winning ways prevailed on the field, however, it became clear that the 90-minute drive separating the majority of Tampa Bay from the current stadium location was a problem that would not be resolved by moving down the road.
In response to the news, the local papers reacted with front page coverage:
We should have a final verdict on the approval of the new deal on Thursday, once it reaches the City Council.
Under the MOU, the team will have until Dec. 31, 2017 to declare a date of termination for the lease contract, or will otherwise be bound to the remaining ten years of the lease from that date.