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Why are the Rays proposing a two-city solution?

Speculation in the calm before the storm

The Dali Museum Grand Opening Ribbon Cutting And Festival Photo by Michael Weimar/Getty Images

It’s hard to know exactly what to say or write about in the moments before a franchise-altering press conference. As of yet, we have no new information on the proposed plan to share the Tampa Bay and Montreal markets between one franchise. We have no new information on the team’s intentions or motivations.

We have a “what,” but just barely, and we do not yet know the “how” or — better yet — the “why.” Is this proposal sincere, or a ploy?

Here’s what has come from the Tampa Bay Times since the news broke last week: Marc Topkin’s reporting (which is always well sourced) a ~$550 million stadium in Tampa with ~27,000 seats that can accommodate the Rays, spring training, and Rowdies soccer games. None of that is official.

There appears to be a fully fledged plan in the works, which would imply it’s not a ploy or a negotiating tactic, at least in my view. Which is also why there will be a press conference and unveiling at a prestige location—the Dali Museum. This moment has all the hallmarks of a very serious idea that the team wants all parties to consider with an open mind.

I also wonder how a plan so audacious and dramatic could be a ploy.

It’s been attempted a couple times in the NBA, albeit without long-term success. The Kings were temporarily a regional team, the Golden State Warriors were conceived as a split-city franchise. Neither could make it work, but the Rays are offering this in a different sport.

If history is our guide, the probability of this proposal being successful will be so low from conception that the press conference this afternoon might as well have C-3PO standing over Brian Auld’s shoulder rattling off the odds of failure until he’s shut off. If the Rays were trying to simply wake everyone in the region up to the crisis, why would these executives dive in head first to a low odds solution, risking personal reputation and regional respectability along the way?

And if it’s just a ploy, why would the Rays choose this moment? It’s a proposal that we learned about when it received MLB’s blessing last Thursday (talk about controlling a media cycle!). If it was a ploy, it’s happening in the wrong order. Forty games is too bold a reach. Montreal played only 22 games in another location in the seasons preceding a move); why not a simple ask like 10 or 22?

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have closed the upper deck at Tropicana Field to concentrate fans to the lower level
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

So what is the “why” if not a negotiation tactic?

Is this just another example of the Rays being cheap? Or is this the team confronting the reality of baseball in Florida, which is filled with minor league teams competing for both public money and attendance numbers week in and week out, in stadiums embedded in the region’s transient population centers?

Despite increased value the team has gained under the ownership of Stuart Sternberg and Co. — if Forbes rankings are to be believed, and the value of sports franchises are not sitting on a bubble — the message is clear: the Rays do not make enough money to operate a successful baseball team.

If that is the “why”, then how much of the blame belongs on the Tampa Bay region being a poor fit for a sport that seeks to fill a stadium for 81 games? Here’s Ernest Hooper, another voice at the Tampa Bay Times, asking the same:

We must accept a cold reality: maybe this market can’t fully support three major sports franchises. Maybe the lack of corporate headquarters, low wages and fixed incomes mean while we love to watch “our teams” on the television, we don’t have enough disposal dollars to prop up the Bucs, Lightning and Rays.

Why not add another option, albeit unconventional and surreal, to the mix of possible solutions? As a region, we’ve had every opportunity to prove baseball could work in this market. To date, we’ve failed.

If you swallow and hard and concede these troubling realities, the idea of a shared team doesn’t seem so horrible.

This new proposal would match a community that’s thus far “failed” their major league team with another that failed theirs through similar dwindling attendance at a poorly located, dated dome.

Baseball did not survive in the north and is ironically under water in the south, if the narrative is to be believed (at least in comparing the Rays to their peers). Could half the attendance and corporate sponsorship opportunities with double the media market even the revenue playing field?

The front office seems to think the answer is yes. They’ll surely tell us more about it in a couple hours, one way or another. But again, we don’t know for sure; yet.

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, left, speaks with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred during his visit for Opening Day 2016 at Tropicana Field
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Rays ownership and front office have consistently said two things:

1) The current state of revenue and attendance is untenable for a franchise to be successful; and,
2) The team would do everything it could to preserve major league baseball in Tampa Bay as they sought a solution.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. In business and in life, I’ve often found that the easiest answer is most often the right one.

“Non-threats” have been posted as warning signs that relocation was on the horizon for the poorly attended team, but it remains to be seen whether that relocation will be to Tampa or another market entirely. Baseball in Pinellas County, despite it’s treasure trove of tax dollars, appears to be heading to an end — that has been true ever since a winning product did not draw folks to the field, and continued to be true once the Rays announced their intention to build a new stadium in Ybor City, outside of Pinellas County.

If you accept the reality, as Hooper does above, that St. Petersburg cannot provide enough revenue to support a winning baseball club, and if you accept the team’s officials at their word that they want to preserve the enterprise of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, then this proposal makes plenty of sense in its conception, even if the “how” is to be determined.

Realities of poor revenue and well-intentioned team officials may be difficult pills to swallow for some, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary to solve the equation for “why.”

Baseball is an expensive hobby for owners and fans and cities alike. It’s entertainment, and one that must be sustainable to make any sort of sense for both a business and a community.

If full-fledged baseball cannot succeed, then perhaps stadium frugality (a proposed half-cost stadium is certainly easier for the Rays to accomplish in Tampa Bay), and game scarcity (concentrating low attendance numbers into fewer opportunities) will perfect an imperfect market.

Lord knows we’ll all still watch on TV. There remains a wounded love here for this franchise, even if the community cannot prove it in the blue seats. Why shouldn’t this community try to save baseball in Tampa Bay, even if the major league season would come at a half measure?

That line of thought checks out for Hooper:

[...] this decision must now be rooted in what’s best for the overall community. It’s time to explore common sense solutions and remove ego from the equation. Stop worrying about what the nation might think of us if we do the unthinkable. We already do.

We know that with or without baseball, we’re a great place to live. Now we have to decide if a fiscally-sound deal for a piece of the Rays can make us greater. If it can, great. If it can’t, we wish them well and try not to hold a grudge. After all, we had more than 20 years to get it right.

And it checks out for me too.

The Rays will present their plan at 1:00 PM EST. We’ll cover all the details here.