Despite a struggling ace, the Tampa Bay Rays are in second place in the AL East and well within striking distance of the first place New York Yankees. Last season they came in third place behind two 100-win teams. When you compare them to many other struggling teams in baseball, it’s relatively good to be a Rays fan right now.
But ESPN is reporting that the Rays are contemplating a split of their home games next season between Tampa Bay and Montreal. Why would a team that’s this competitive want to leave town for half the year?
History of baseball in Tampa
The Tampa Bay Rays began play during the 1998 season alongside the Arizona Diamondbacks, they were initially known as the Devil Rays. It would take 10 seasons for them to contend for a championship when they lost the 2008 World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies behind manager Joe Maddon.
Despite the Rays fielding some rather competitive teams in recent years, they’ve struggled to get fans in the seats. Through July 2nd, the Rays rank second to last in attendance behind only the Miami Marlins.
Those numbers aren’t likely to improve as long as they play in their dilapidated stadium, Tropicana Field. Former commissioner Bud Selig has claimed the Rays need a new ballpark, and based on their attendance, it’s hard to disagree.
History of baseball in Montreal
The Expos began playing in Montreal in 1969 as an expansion team. The team never won a World Series or even a National League championship.
One of the great “what could have been?” baseball questions of all time is “What would the Expos have done if the 1994 season hadn’t been cut short by a players’ strike?”
The Expos were leading the NL East at the time of the strike with stars like Moises Alou and Pedro Martinez. The team had other great players throughout their time, including Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Tim Raines, and Vladimir Guerrero.
The history of Montreal splitting MLB games
The Expos struggled mightily in the late ’90s, trading off most of their best prospects and stars. Attendance would decline rapidly. MLB assumed ownership of the dwindling franchise in 2002.
The team would eventually split games between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004 in an attempt to generate interest in a different area of the world and offset horrid attendance numbers in Canada. The experiment was not a success.
Despite a rich baseball history in Montreal, the team was forced to relocate. After the 2004 season, the Expos departed Montreal for Washington D.C. where they were rechristened the Washington Nationals.
How a split could save baseball in Tampa
Baseball in Tampa is at an impasse. The team has had multiple issues securing financing for a new stadium as well as an apathetic fan base. Without a reverse of either, it’s hard to see attendance increasing no matter how good a product the team puts on the field.
Meanwhile, Montreal has always been a great baseball city. They strongly supported the Expos, until the team held a firesale of their top talent in the ’90s. There have been rampant rumors of a return to baseball in Montreal for years.
While baseball isn’t likely to add another franchise at the moment, they may be willing to add a new market. Splitting games between Tampa and Montreal puts less pressure on Tampa to fill seats for 81 games a year.
It could also give Rays another market in which to build a fan base. A TV deal in Montreal to broadcast Rays games all year could greatly increase the team’s revenue. Merchandise sales could also go up, particularly if the team is competitive. This could go a long way towards giving the team the funding it needs to build a new stadium in Tampa.
Conversely, it could light a spark under the dormant Montreal baseball market, which has craved baseball for 15 years. If the fans there produce solid attendance numbers, it could lead to the possibility of Montreal getting its own expansion team.
Right now, Tampa has an attendance and stadium problem. Montreal has a “not having a team” problem. Perhaps a collaboration between the cities is exactly what they both need.