Tampa Bay Rays Ownership in Legal Battle Over Allegations of a Secret Montreal Deal

Some may not remember a plan for the Tampa Bay Rays to split their home games between yet-to-be-built (or even financed) open-air ballparks in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal as soon as the 2028 season. But now, minority owners of the Rays are suing managing partner Stuart Sternberg over how he’s managed to accumulate a much larger interest in the club. They also allege a secret deal to sell the franchise to the Montreal interests, not just go into a time-share arrangement.

Montreal has been without Major League Baseball since the Expos moved to Washington after the 2004 season. Attendance has been an ongoing issue for the Rays in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, it was one of the factors that eventually drove the Expos out of Canada. But the partners squabbling in court doesn’t paint a pretty picture for baseball in Tampa Bay. The Rays have struggled to gain a foothold with fans despite being a frequent contender.

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Tropicana Field has long been a sore spot for the Tampa Bay Rays
General view of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. | Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The minority shareholders in the Tampa Bay Rays filed suit recently against the team and managing partner Stuart Sternberg. They accuse Sternberg of failing to keep accurate records, including compensation agreements. Sternberg also faces accusations of using deceptive techniques to increase his ownership stake in the franchise through transferring shares to a separate company he owns and controls.

Finally, the suit claims Sternberg has been secretly negotiating to sell an interest to Stephen Bronfman’s Montreal Baseball Group since 2014. That is years before the split-city negotiations reportedly began.

In December 2020, Sternberg said the Tampa Bay-Montreal split is the sole option for the franchise after its lease at Tropicana Field expires, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“We are getting toward 2028, and you can’t snap your fingers and just have the stadium show up. It’s getting trickier and trickier by the year to get something done.”

Steven Sternberg

The lease at the Trop runs out after the 2027 season. According to reports on the talks, open-air stadiums in both the Tampa Bay region and Montreal would save costs. Having the team play in Florida early in the season would preclude the need for a roof to protect from heat and summer storms. In early summer, moving up to Montreal would eliminate the need for a roof to keep out the sometimes-wintry weather of Canadian spring.

Neither city has been an attendance dynamo

The Tampa Bay Rays played in the 2020 World Series, held in a bubble at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. The six games averaged 11,437 fans per game. MLB and officials in Texas hammered out a deal to allow 28.5% capacity at the park for the National League Championship Series and World Series.

That is not appreciably less than the Rays averaged at the Trop from 2010–19, the last 10 pre-pandemic seasons. After 2010, when the club drew 23,025 fans per game, the Rays consistently trailed most of the American League attendance. The 10-year average attendance is 17,315, and the team was last or next-to-last in the AL each year from 2011–19.

But Montreal’s history doesn’t show much better results. They’re even worse. From a peak of 2.32 million fans in 1983, Expos’ attendance dropped steadily over the team’s final two decades in Canada. That drop became more precipitous after the 1994 players’ strike wiped out the last seven weeks of the season and the entire postseason. Montreal had the best record in baseball at the time the sport shut down. The financial agreements that got the game back on the field precluded the Expos from retaining their stars. From 1997 to their final season in 2004, Montreal had just two winning seasons.

The Expos played some of their home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2003 and 2004. The average attendance in the last full season at Stade Olympique was a paltry 10,025.

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Montreal had an MLB franchise for 36 seasons and was famously the first home city for Jackie Robinson after he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. But other cities have gotten much more buzz about potential MLB expansion or relocation. The Oakland A’s are reportedly eyeing Las Vegas if they can’t get a stadium done.

Portland and Nashville are also often mentioned as potential new markets for baseball.  But it seems the situation surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays is going to get uglier. And the dirty laundry is on track for a public airing to boot.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.