Why Stuart Sternberg will move the Rays to Montreal


Full disclosure: For the sake of the fans in Tampa / St. Pete, I do wish that you keep your team, get a new stadium, draw 2.5 million fans and get a multi-billion TV deal.  If these miraculous events occur, Major League Baseball will win and that will be a good thing.  For die-hard fans, losing a team to another city is painful.  I know this because I lived it more than ten years ago.  It’s painful to be among 3,000 in attendance and know that your team drew more in San Juan, Puerto Rico than in your own city.  It’s  painful to watch a team that was one out away from a World Series in 1981 end up fielding the equivalent of a mediocre AAA team in 2004, our final lame duck year.  It’s painful to read reports from other cities stating that the Expos should leave Montreal for reasons x, y, and z.  In retrospect, based on the prevailing economic conditions of the time, for the most part, those reports were accurate.

I am here to present an opinion as to why Stuart Sternberg will have no choice but to move his team.

The Stadium
I seriously doubt that Florida taxpayers can fund or take on additional debt to pay for another $700 million stadium.  Jeffrey Loria and all the controversy that came with building Marlins Stadium pretty much guarantees that this will be a no-go unless the construction is privately funded.  Sternberg will not put any major investment towards a Tampa stadium for reasons that I state later in this article.

Montreal has a few sites for the new ballpark.  Of course, this will require a good amount of public funding.  The Canadian federal government will soon announce a budget surplus and will likely be in a generous mood towards Quebec.  It’s no coincidence that 2015 will be an election year so they are ready to pass out the candy.  We currently have a provincial  government in power that is favorable to economic development in Montreal.  Lastly, our dynamic mayor Denis Coderre, is a baseball nut and has been working hard to champion the cause.  I admit that getting to that groundbreaking ceremony will be a challenge.  Difficult but not impossible.

The Rays’ television deal comes up for renewal at the end of the 2016 baseball season.  If I read the sources correctly, the Rays currently make about $20 million per year and the next deal will likely be only slightly higher come renegotiation time.  Let’s go wild and say that a new TV deal will be worth $50 million per year.

Bell Media is rumored to be among the ownership group interested in acquiring a share of the Rays.  As Jon Morosi reports, Bell Media is thirsty for live sports content.  It is reasonable to think that a TV deal with coverage across Canada will be worth several billion dollars.

Value of the Franchise
According to Forbes, the Tampa Bay Rays are worth $485 million. If we would track this over time, the Rays’ value increases at a lower rate than some notable MLB franchises.  For example, we have seen the Dodgers and Padres get sold for astronomical amounts of money while staying in their respective cities.  Can this happen in Tampa?  I don’t think so.

I am of the opinion that Sternberg can sell a share of his team to Montreal investors, keep his majority ownership and instantly elevate the value of his franchise close to the $1 billion dollar range.  In their heyday, the Montreal Expos had a fan base across Canada, upstate New York, and Vermont.  For the relocated team, this means more revenue in merchandise, brand  recognition and of course value of the franchise.  It does not hurt that the baseball team would ride on the coattails of another billion dollar franchise: the Montreal Canadiens.

The numbers don’t lie.  Both the Marlins and Rays are perennial bottom five teams when it comes to attendance.  Certainly the Miami Marlins got a bounce in 2012, their inaugural year, but that was short lived.  A combination of an acrimonious relationship with Loria and $8 beers does not help.  If ever the Rays get a new stadium in Tampa, they will enjoy a  similar bounce in their first year.  The Rays have a very small core of die-hard fans and I doubt that their numbers will sustain any long-term traction.  I read that most of the Gulf Coast residents’ allegiances are with other MLB teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.  Major League Baseball has been in Florida for more than twenty years and has not seen any sort of  sustained success when it comes to attendance.

A Montreal team in the AL East is a perfect fit.  There will be natural rivalries with the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees.  Doing the math, there should be 29-30 homes games per year with these three teams.  Let’s assume near sell-outs for these games in a 36,000 seat open air stadium.  This adds up to 1 million in attendance with still another 51 games to count on.

Possibility of Expansion
Montreal will accept a baseball team in any flavor with open arms.  By all accounts, expansion is a longshot.  I don’t recall reading anywhere Bud Selig saying “never” to expansion.  Difficult but not impossible.  Will Sternberg stand pat in Tampa and pass on Montreal?  I don’t think so.

Why is Montreal the right place this time?
For starters, one look outside any downtown office window and you will see the skyline littered with cranes.  This city is booming with economic development.  A downtown baseball stadium will be Montreal’s crowning achievement.

As others have stated, the baseball world is far different today than it was 10-15 years ago.  Social media, huge TV deals, streaming MLB content and merchandising to name a few, are all elements that make a city of 3 million people the right place to have a MLB franchise.

Other cities have had second chances at major league baseball.  Given this chance, cities like Washington have flourished.  If the rumors are true about the Montreal ownership group, these guys will not allow this opportunity to fail.  They are proven winners and passionate about Montreal.  Bell Media’s partnership in this venture will be the crown jewel and provide some certainty in cash flows that the team can count on.

… and finally
Montreal has a window of opportunity to make this happen.  I trust that all the movers and shakers will do their best, in a quiet way, to make this happen.  In St. Pete, Stuart Sternberg will go through the motions and say the right things to keep the hope alive.  Realistically, he knows that the writing is on the wall.  He already knows what I have stated here, and then  some.  He too has a window of opportunity to increase the value of his investment.  Will he let this slip away?  I don’t think so.

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