by JAKE NUTTING
There was no shortage of reactions from yesterday’s press conference in which the Tampa Bay Rays made their case for splitting future Major League Baseball seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal.
Rowdies fans entered the conversation when it came to principal owner Stuart Sternberg’s comment that the Rowdies and Rays sharing a new stadium at the Al Lang site or somewhere else in Tampa Bay as a part of this proposal is a possibility. Yes, people inside the Rays organization were paying attention to what Rowdies fans were saying about this bit of news.
“It seemed like some concerned fans who want to make sure the future of their team is under consideration, and it certainly is,” Rays President and Rowdies Vice-Chairman Brian Auld said about the response. “It certainly took us off guard. We were talking about the Major League Baseball team and a new and innovative idea that’s never been tried before in professional sports, and so our focus was very much on the baseball side of things yesterday.”
That was one thing Auld tried to make very clear. The sole focus of this proposal at the moment is about the Rays and finding a way to keep them in the region. Part of the reason the Rowdies weren’t part of the discussion more is because them being a part of the proposal and sharing a venue with the Rays is by no means set in stone. Right now it’s just an idea the organization finds very intriguing if they can find a way to make it work.
“We are working towards playing outdoor baseball in Tampa Bay and Montreal. In both cases you’re talking about reducing the number of Major League Baseball games that get played in either place and we thought it was really important that the community hear that we are very, very open to considering other uses to the ballparks as well,” Auld said. “Whether that be USF football games, the Rowdies games that we control, spring training games for the Rays, Florida State League Baseball, or literally anything else you can think of we’re gonna explore, assuming the city of St. Petersburg permits us to explore the idea at all. One of the lines Stu used yesterday was when you cut yourself off from discussion you cut yourself off from opportunity, and we don’t ever cut ourselves off from discussion.”
Assuming St. Petersburg does give permission for the Rays to explore this split-season proposal, and then assuming the Rays make everything work out and they end up constructing a stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay other than Al Lang, Auld says “it’s certainly on the table and well within the realm of possibility” that the Rowdies remain at Al Lang and the Rays do their own thing at the new stadium.
“I am a Rowdies fan and I can tell you the pie in the sky, best case scenario is the Rays are able to execute on this plan, baseball is humming north of the borer and down here, and we’ve got a brand new world-class ballpark for the Rays that’s capable of serving as a MLS home for the Rowdies,” Auld said. “The odds of that happening right now feel pretty low, but as a Rowdies fan and a Rays fan I’d be really, really excited if we were able to make that happen. That isn’t the goal right now for me in my capacity as a professional involved with both organizations. I’m focused on winning a USL championship with the Rowdies and growing that fanbase and doing so at an organic and appropriate pace. With the Rays it’s about convincing the community this idea is one worth consideration and convincing city officials that control part of our fate here that we want to go about it and go about it in earnest on the baseball side of things.”
Tuesday’s developments of course added fuel to the fire of those who believe the Rays only bought the Rowdies last year as a ploy to get a second shot at developing a new baseball stadium at Al Lang. However, the fact is buying the Rowdies entitled the Rays to nothing at Al Lang other than the right to manage the venue as the primary home of the soccer club until the current use agreement (inherited with the exact same terms from Bill Edwards) ends after November 30 of 2020.
The public referendum that went in favor of the Rowdies back in 2017 only granted the St. Petersburg City Council permission to approve a long-term use agreement at Al Lang that the city and Rowdies would’ve negotiated for the Rowdies if they had been awarded an MLS expansion slot. Any new plan involving baseball on a large scale would have to go through the same process since that referendum was specifically tied to the Rowdies getting MLS.
Responding to the persistent speculation of the Rays using the Rowdies just for control of Al Lang Auld said, “We have one more year on our lease at Al Lang. I don’t know what happens after that. The city controls that site. We certainly have to figure out where the Rowdies play after that. We know that it will be in St. Petersburg, we want it to be in St. Petersburg. But the baseball discussion, which could happen no earlier than 2024, really shouldn’t have a whole lot of impact on where the Rowdies are playing between now and then, at the earliest. We do not own Al Lang. We do not own the land. We cannot do whatever we want there. You need a public referendum to do anything there, other than what has already been approved, which I believe is make it MLS ready. So there are a lot of steps from here to this plan interfering with anything going on with the Rowdies.”
In the event that the Rays and the Rowdies do end up sharing a venue, a huge challenge would be finding a way to make it work on the field and in the stands for the fans who’ve grown accustom to the gorgeous views at Al Lang. Baseball and soccer have not mixed well in virtually in every instance they’ve been combined. Just ask New York City FC fans who have suffered horrendous sightlines and poor field conditions at Yankee Stadium.
The damage to the field from transitioning back and forth between the sports, the contrasting dimensions, and the potential for poor sightlines at Rowdies matches was a huge sticking point for Ralph’s Mob and The Skyway Casuals, the Rowdies’ two independent supporters groups. The groups released a joint statement late on Tuesday rejecting the shared stadium idea.
??Joint response to Rays press conference today ?? #COYR
Auld is aware of the challenges and yet is confident they can find a way to succeed where others have failed if they engineer it for both sports from the start.
“I think for it to work you’ve gotta plan for it on the way in. I think if you do that it’s real easy,” he said. “You’re talking about making sure the infield’s not gonna interfere with anything because the seasons are gonna overlap a little bit. The fact that we wouldn’t be there the entire summer because we’d be up in Montreal with the baseball makes it a little more feasible. Again, we are at the very beginning of the idea phase, but we have pretty fantastic architects who have worked with us over the years. It’s always been something that’s kinda been in the back of our minds, not just for soccer but also for football because we believe to get the most out of (your investment) you want to be able to host a lot of events. A lot of those events exist on rectangles. They can’t have dirt interfering with the game. We think those things are very possible and that if you design for them from the outset that you can do something that allows for shared facilities that doesn’t detract in any way from the enjoyment of the sport.
“Now, look, is it possible to maybe build the absolute perfect baseball and soccer venue in the same place without making a couple sacrifices here and there? Maybe not. But is it worth considering that if it’s going to save the public potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium construction costs? I think it’s worth exploring.”
It’s ironic that all this happening shortly after the first Rays/Rowdies doubleheader day promotion, where fans could buy a $30 combo package that gave them a ticket to the Rays afternoon game and the Rowdies games in the evening. The organizations are running the same deal this Saturday and Rowdies COO Lee Cohen said around the response the first time around was overwhelming, with around 600 people taking advantage of the deal to watch both teams.
Just as the Rowdies and Rays are starting to synergize in mutually beneficial ways, they’re now having to contend with fans who believe sharing a venue would one step too far in bringing the two organizations together.
“I really want Rowdies fans to hear me loud and clear. I saw the statement from the supporters groups last night. The Rowdies are not an afterthought, but this project is about baseball,” Auld said. “We would hope that we’ve earned a little bit of an open mind from the greater Rays community in terms of being open to the concept we’re talking about in sharing with Montreal. We’d hope that we’ve shown we’re committed to winning and putting a high quality product on the field already and investing in Al Lang. We’re gonna continue to run the organization that way. We’re gonna continue to stay focused on it.”
Unlike Rays fans, Rowdies fans are not being asked to share or risk losing their team altogether. As things stand today, ownership is just hopeful that Rowdies supporters don’t shut down the idea entirely without at least trying to envision what could be if they execute everything the right way.
“When you close your eyes and imagine what could be and you do so from a position of optimism rather than cynicism, you can absolutely see a world in which a new facility might be able to offer sponsors a lot more and generate greater support for both organizations, and more stability and more sustainability,” Auld said. “Sports in Tampa Bay isn’t easy, it’s isn’t easy anywhere. It’s true for the entire state of Florida. Combining these two properties and being open to some innovation give us a shot to do something really special, and that’s what we’re all about here.”
Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies