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Montreal and the Rays: Who is for and who is against the Sister City concept

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Stu Sternberg is getting sued by his co-owners over Montreal, the Mayor wants him to step down, and the Sister City concept has never looked more likely. Wait, what?

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Devil Rays Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

The Rays — or perhaps we should say Rays ownership — has been in the news lately, as five of the team’s minority owners have filed suit against Principal owner Stuart Sternberg. alleging, “breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and constructive fraud.” The claim is complicated, and involves Sternberg reorganizing the baseball club under a shell company without sharing profits in full, while alleging a plan to move the club to Montreal has been underway since 2014.

This legal wrangling, plus new comments from the mayors of both Tampa and St. Pete about their interest in working with the team, may distract us from a key issue: As far as the Rays are concerned, the so-called “sister city” proposal — in which the Rays split their time between two home stadium in two different cities — is still on the table.

Rays leadership seems to believe that come 2028 the team will start the season in a new stadium somewhere in the Tampa Bay area, and then, in early summer, move to a new stadium somewhere in the Montreal area.

Are the key players really on board with this idea? Let’s take a look at the current position for the stakeholders in the Rays plans for a Sister City season.

Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg — FOR

This one might be a given but it comes with some baggage as well. Sternberg famously did not live in the Tampa Bay area until very recently, when the time for negotiating a new stadium came to the forefront. The Montreal plan, which at first drew local opprobrium, appears to be in-part his brainchild.

Expanding the Rays to Montreal would, of course, include Sternberg cashing out a portion of his ownership, a sale that could net him hundreds of millions of dollars when the time comes.

Rays Minority Owners — UNCLEAR

Five minority share holders representing approximately 10% of the club’s ownership have sued Stu Sternberg this week, alleging that the Rays principal owner has been passing through tax burdens without sharing profits, and conspiring with the city of Montreal for nearly a decade to move the team.

The Rays organization responded with a curious public statement in the form of a tweet that lacked the typical tone and messaging of the Rays Public Relations department, alleging that “We” had done nothing wrong. Who was represented in that “we” statement is about as clear as the Rays future in Tampa Bay.

The lawsuit was filed under a “verified complaint,” which exposes the plaintiffs to the penalties of perjury if their claims are false. It seems unlikely the minority owners filing suit are part of the “we” statement, despite being part owners of the club, but what about the other minority shareholders? And what of the employees of the organization?

And for the minority owners behind the lawsuit, does opposition to Sternberg imply opposition to the Montreal proposal? Expanding into Quebec would surely expand the revenue streams of the franchise, and thereby increase the value of ownership’s equity in the club.

Major League Baseball — FOR

Any plan that would increase the reach of the game and increase revenue for one of its teams is sure to be a winner for the corporate arm of the sport we love, but lest you thing there was any ambiguity, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is on the record supporting the Sister City concept, saying, “I am 100 percent convinced and, more importantly, the other owners have been convinced.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman — AGAINST

Kriseman was elected on a political platform that supported the Rays search for a new stadium location in Tampa Bay, believing they’d choose St. Petersburg as the club’s forever home. The Rays conducted their search and tried to move the team to Tampa, but failed to do so as Tampa/Hillsborough County could not provide the Rays with an effective stadium-building champion, nor could they identify a source of public funds.

With a new stadium in Tampa seemingly off the table, the Rays did come back to St. Pete — but now with the idea that the city would be merely a part-time home.

Kriseman saw this as a deal breaker, and changed his focus from building a new stadium to the land itself, launching a relentless pursuit of finalizing a plan to re-develop the land under Tropicana Field, which takes up approximately 20-25% of the downtown footprint of St. Petersburg.

The term-limited Mayor is now in his final year, and may be hoping to choose the site’s developer as a means to solidify his legacy before leaving office, as the various proposals are quite varied in style and approach. Each includes the option for a ballpark, but a new stadium is not a requirement to proceed.

Previously: Tropicana Field site redevelopment narrowed to four proposals

Kriseman has since faced opposition to his re-development efforts.

In the wake of the Minority Owner lawsuit, the Mayor has punched back, first cancelling his office’s contract with an outside consulting firm to assist in selecting a developer, then calling for Sternberg to step down from managing operations at the baseball club. Kriseman has also claimed his office will no longer negotiate with the Tampa Bay Rays, but that is a somewhat hollow promise when he has approximately seven months left in office.

St. Petersburg City Council — FOR

The St. Petersburg City Council, which controls how money is spent in the city and also controls the Rays lease for Tropicana Field, has halted progress on redeveloping the 80+ acres site until the future of the baseball team has been decided.

Previously, the Mayor of St. Petersburg’s office had been moving at a breakneck speed to select and approve a developer to take control of the Tropicana Field site that accounts for nearly 25% of St. Pete’s downtown footprint, and is currently (mostly) a parking lot.

Aligning itself with the interests of the Rays, and in direct opposition to the Mayor’s office, the City Council invited the Rays to make a public presentation of its case for the Sister City concept last month, and drafted a resolution to solidify their position that the Rays should have a seat at the table for any redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.

And while the Mayor’s office may be opposed, at least for the next seven months, the City Council controls the purse strings and the Rays use agreement for Tropicana Field. It would seem they have far more power to decide the future of downtown St. Petersburg than the Mayor at this stage.

Does the City Council’s appeasement of the Rays mean there is unanimous support for the Sister City concept? Based on the public comments following the Rays presentation, Councilmembers Gabbard, Driscoll, and Montanari voiced support, while Councilmember Blackmon would not stand in the way. The Council has eight members; the positions of the other four were not explicitly clear on the Sister City concept.

Tampa Politicians — FOR

While the City of Tampa lacks the monetary resources to pave the way for a Rays stadium, it has the enthusiasm. And while a split season would result in only approximately 40 home games per season, Tampa seems to embrace the possible additions of the Rowdies, Spring Training, and mixed use facility opportunities that come with moving the organization across the bay.

When asked to react to Kriseman’s decision to stop working with Sternberg, Tampa Mayor Jane Foster quipped, “I can work with anybody.” Then, on Thursday, Rays President Brian Auld met with two Hillsborough County Commissioners to re-visit an Ybor stadium proposal.

It’s not uncommon for senior Rays leadership to meet with local politicians, but the timing of this meeting was surely fortuitous, for with it the Rays stadium hopes in Ybor have been revived in the public eye.

Montreal Politicians — FOR

As for attitudes across the border to the north, two Montreal-based lobbyists registered in March 2021 with the local government to push for partial government financing for a stadium on behalf of the Bronfman family’s investment firm and the Montreal Baseball Group, per the Montreal Gazette.

The move came just days after the local Finance Premier François Legault asserted that, “Quebec would be willing to subsidize the construction of a new ballpark in Montreal if the return of Major League Baseball to the city can be shown to generate sufficient fiscal revenue for the province.”