Tampa Bay? Montreal? Charlotte? The State of the Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays are in a crisis. Their stadium is terrible for baseball and their attendance figures are consistently some of the worst in the Majors. It has gotten so bad for them that the Rays are considering playing half their home games in Montreal in future seasons. Yes; you read that correctly. Montreal, Quebec, Canada, located over 1500 miles north of Tampa.

How did they get in this sticky spot and what will the final result be? To answer the first question, let me give a brief history of the Rays franchise.

1998: After nearly three decades of attempting to lure in teams considering a move, the Tampa Bay Area is finally awarded its own baseball franchise called the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They play their home games at Tropicana Field, the only U.S. ballpark with Artificial Turf and a fixed roof. The team goes through typical expansion struggles and finishes in the basement of the AL East with a 63-99 record.

1999-2007: The Devil Rays fail to develop their prospects and remain irrelevant. They finish last place in the AL East every year except one in this stretch.

2008: The franchise undergoes a name change, becoming the Tampa Bay Rays. Then out of nowhere, the team shocks the Majors with a 97-65 season. Removing the “devil” in their name certainly did wonders for the team. And they don’t stop there. They crush the White Sox in the ALDS and upset the defending champion Red Sox in the ALCS. After a decade of irrelevance, the Rays are going to the World Series.

2008 WS: The Phillies dominant pitching staff is too much for the Rays to overcome and they lose the World Series 4 games to 1. However, the future appears to be bright for baseball in the Tampa Bay Area.

2009-2013: The Rays never come close to the World Series again. They finish with a winning record every season, but they never make it past the ALDS.

2014-present: The Rays return to irrelevance. Since 2013, the Rays have shown flashes of brilliance and talent, but they haven’t been able to put it all together and make the playoffs. Even this year, they started 41-24, but are just 19-24 since.

The saddest part about the Rays, however, is there attendance figures. Listed below is the Rays average attendance per game of every season since 2012.

2012: 19,255               2013: 18,646               2014: 17,858               2015: 15,322  

2016: 15,879               2017: 15,477               2018: 14,259               2019: 15,602

The 2012 number is already low to begin with. In every season except 2014, they have finished last in the AL in attendance. This is for three reasons:

  1. Tampa is a small baseball market.
  2. The Rays don’t have a history of success.
  3. Tropicana Field is ugly inside and out, and has the confusing catwalks, which disrupt the games alarmingly frequently. There have been multiple cases of balls being hit high up off the catwalks and back into fair play, or sometimes not coming back into the field of play at all. Simply put, Tropicana Field is a terrible ballpark to play baseball in.

The MLB knew about the ballpark’s terrible state and the fans lack of response, and so they decided to take action. Commissioner Rob Manfred said that the Rays have official permission to play half their home games in Montreal. The idea is that Rays fans would be desperate to keep the team in the Tampa Bay Area, and that the Tampa Bay Area in return would grant the Rays a new stadium to compete in.

Assuming the Rays do move half their games to Montreal, I see four potential outcomes in the future:

  1. Everything goes according to plan. More fans show up at Tropicana Field and the Rays play well enough for the Tampa Bay Area to build a new stadium and keep the franchise.
  2. Current Rays fans are alienated by the “half-move” and don’t go the games. However, former fans of the Montreal Expos come and see the team play in Montreal. With losing support in Tampa and rising support in Montreal, the Rays move to Canada.
  3. Neither Rays nor former Expos fans show up to games and the team loses nearly all of its value. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg sells the team, and the new owner moves the team to a completely different city. If this outcome occurs, I see the Rays moving to Charlotte, San Antonio, or Nashville.
  4. Same as #3, except that Stuart Sternberg keeps the team because there are no buyers. With the Tampa Bay Area and Montreal not interested in the team, and no potential owners interested in buying the team, the franchise folds.

Of the four above outcomes, I think #3 has the best chance of happening. By the year 2030, we might be watching the Charlotte Rays play baseball.

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