The Tampa Bay Rays have only ever called Tampa Bay home. The baseball team has put down roots in a community that has rallied around it in moments of triumph and in moments of uncertainty, just like the present—a potential partial move to Canada.
The Rays first unveiled a potential “sister-city” plan, which would split the season’s games between Tampa Bay and Montreal, in June 2019. Rays owner Stu Sternberg is the driving force behind the idea, looking to build new stadiums in both cities. Sternberg has cited lackluster attendance and diminishing support for the ballclub as a justification, while President Matthew Silverman has said the sister-city plan is “the best and possibly only chance for baseball to be here [in Tampa Bay] for generations.”
In the wake of persistent promotion of the Montreal plan by Rays ownership, fans have begun to collectively push back. @moveraystotampa is a Twitter account which describes itself as a movement “completely run by the fans” that fully opposes the Montreal plan. “For far too long our franchise has been ridiculed by not only the big market sports media, but by our owner himself. As a fanbase, we have had enough, its official online statement says.”
One of these fans, who wishes to be identified as Jay, has been speaking out against the sister-city plan through social media and has rapidly garnered support online.
“When your owner says that he wants to ultimately move your franchise to another country while not investing in Tampa Bay whatsoever, it makes perfect sense why fans do not show up to games,” Jay said in an interview with the Voice. “He refuses to go through with the solution of moving the team to Tampa since it’d cost him too much.”
The Rays currently play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg—over 30 minutes outside of downtown Tampa. The stadium’s location has the lowest population within a 30-minute commute out of all 30 Major League Baseball venues. It has about half the regional population of the next lowest team—Tropicana Field is ranked 30th with 670,000 people, while PNC Park Pittsburgh is ranked 29th with 1.18 million.
So it’s no surprise that compared to most other Major League teams, the Rays see much lower levels of turnout at their games, ranking 28th out of 30 ball clubs in average attendance this year at 9,396 per game and 29th in 2019. Instead of splitting the team with Montreal, many Rays fans argue that a stadium in Tampa proper could solve the attendance issues while keeping the team local.
“They’ve never made us feel welcome at home, they’ve never committed to the community,” Jay said. “If they open their wallets and come to Tampa, we could see the future of Rays baseball thriving.” If the Tampa Bay Lightning, an ice hockey team, can sell out virtually every game since 2014 in ice-devoid Florida, he pointed out, it should not be a problem to sell baseball to fans.
Opposition against the Montreal plans and Rays ownership has come from the Rays fan base collectively. Whether demonstrating public disapproval at games or rallying community objection online, fans have become more and more vocal.
At the beginning of the postseason, the team announced that the Rays would put up a sign in Tropicana Field promoting the sister-city plan throughout the playoffs. Fans were not happy about the distraction from success at a time when the Rays are more competitive than ever.
“When [Sternberg] announced the sign and then went on the radio to apologize saying he didn’t mean to take the spotlight off the players, it felt like a fake apology,” Jay said. “Later the next week, they still held an event in Tampa talking about the split season plan and he got what he wanted, he got the attention.”
Devon Garnett, a lifelong Rays fan and a diehard Tampa Bay sports fan, was there when Rays executive Brian Auld touted the Montreal plan, and Garnett decided to voice his thoughts.
“I was fortunate to get off work, I felt it was kind of my duty to at least say the things everyone’s been asking,” he said. “We’re in the 11th hour, we need answers, and the sister-city plan is not the solution.”
After Garnett presented his points against the Montreal plan, Auld simply responded with, “So you didn’t have a question?” Auld’s dismissive reply went viral locally in Tampa Bay.
“It was annoying 100 percent,” commented Garnett on the interaction with Auld. “At least acknowledge and say, ‘These are great points, I’d love to talk about them.’ He’s a Stanford graduate, he knows how to talk to people, we’re human.”
After the interaction, Auld reached out to Garnett after his originally dismissive reply, apologizing and offering to talk to Garnett after the season ended. “The season is over, so I have to take him up on the offer,” Garnett said.
Garnett’s interaction is far too familiar for Rays fans. They feel they have not been listened to, and at a time as crucial for the future of the team as now, one can only see Auld’s response as emblematic of the ownership’s attitude towards the fans.
Whether the ownership will go through with the plan or not, or whether executives like Auld will genuinely listen to fans like Garnett, remains unclear. What is apparent is that Tampa Bay Rays fans will not see a Montreal team as their own.
“I’ll become a Braves fan,” Garnett replied when asked if he’d support a split Rays team. “It’s a joke, I’m not sharing half a season with Montreal.”
When it comes down to it, the sister-city proposal is an unreasonable, even nonsensical, plan in the eyes of Rays fans who see no real benefit.
“[Sternberg] thinks the split will get him double the money, but the thing is he expects to keep our fan base in Tampa Bay and gain a Montreal fan base, which won’t happen,” Jay said. “Rays fans won’t support that team.”