The Rays have long been fighting an iron clad lease that restricts the Rays to the city limits of St. Petersburg, should the Rays ever want to develop a new stadium.
After unsuccessful votes before the eight member City Council in 2014 and 2015, the Rays finally seem poised for an agreement to allow a new stadium search between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The cost to the team for terminating the current agreement would cost a reasonable sum of $24 million.
While the restriction to the two counties encompassing Tampa Bay would seem to reflect the team's desire to remain in the area, journalists for WTSP Channel 10 (led by Noah Pransky) noticed a new clause added to the proposal (legally referred to as a Memorandum of Understanding, or "MOU"):
i. The Club acknowledges and agrees that the City is entering into this MOU in an effort to keep the Franchise in Pinellas or Hillsborough for the long term and ... shall be applicable only in the event the City and the Club enter into a Termination Amendment in order for the Franchise to play its Home Games at a stadium in Pinellas or Hillsborough through at least the end of the 2027 Season (except for Excused Games as defned below)...
vi. For purposes of this MOU, "Excused Games" means those Home Games that are not played due to a Force Majeure Event; and up to ten (10) Home Games per MLB season played at a facility that is not located in Pinellas or Hillsborough.
I'll be honest and say when I read this the only thought that crossed my mind was the international market -- the opportunity to play games in places like Cuba or Mexico or Australia. I did not see a cause for alarm.
The Rays have also twice played home games in Orlando at Disney's Wild World of Sports, during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Both trips required City Council approval, which Pransky acknowledges.
Regardless, Pransky honed in on this clause this afternoon, identifying it as a tactic regularly deployed by teams looking to re-locate:
It's a tactic Tampa Bay baseball fans became familiar with in the 1990s, as the Mariners, Rangers, and White Sox all used the threat of a Florida relocation to score taxpayer-funded stadiums in their home markets.
After a brief correspondence with Noah to verify the agreement was restricted to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, I read through the agreement in full (available here) and was not bothered by the clause. In my mind, constructing an entirely new stadium was a key factor in the proposed agreement.
However, Pransky pushes further, speculating that the Rays could choose to utilize an existing minor league stadium for a short term fix, and leverage the 10-game clause to explore other markets.
For only $24 million, the Rays could conceivably tear up their existing contract after the 2017 season and start playing 71 home games in an existing Tampa Bay minor-league stadium - potentially with additional, temporary seats - and play 10 games a year in markets like Montreal,...
They would then only need to deal with the unknown legal repercussions of their new lease(s) if they wanted to leave before 2027, rather than the seemingly-ironclad contract the team is currently locked into with St. Petersburg.
The Rays failed to return numerous requests for comment Tuesday.
Through inquiry, Pransky noted that city and team officials did not discuss this aspect of the MOU with Councilmembers during meetings last week.
Several city councilmembers contacted Tuesday said they were surprised by the finding, having never been briefed by city staff or the Rays on the significance of the clause. However, it first appeared in Mayor Rick Kriseman's original December 2014 MOU, failing to raise a single eyebrow among city staff, councilmembers, or journalists until 10Investigates took a closer look at the language this week.
With a hearing anticipated later this week on the proposal, the Rays could face another difficult Council meeting, putting a stadium search in jeopardy.