By Sean Farrell - Associated Press
The son of former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman believes the predominantly French-speaking city is ready and willing to support — and share — the Tampa Bay Rays.
Private equity investor Stephen Bronfman leads a group working on bringing baseball back to Montreal and said Wednesday the city can embrace the sport again. He called the idea of one team in two cities groundbreaking.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week the Rays have "broad permission to explore what's available." Tampa Bay is averaging 14,546 fans a game, lowest in the American League and well below the MLB average of 27,360. Only the Miami Marlins draw smaller crowds, averaging 9,378.
On Tuesday, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said it's unrealistic for his team to play full time in the Tampa Bay area, and said a shared season with Montreal is the best option.
Montreal has been without a big-league team since the Expos left after the 2004 season for Washington and became the Nationals.
"We have always said we have a two-track approach," Bronfman said. "There has always been the possibility of a team being relocated, and then there is expansion. We don't know if expansion is in the cards in the decade to come, if at all. We have this possibility now to begin the work of having Major League Baseball here with an existing team that is really professional. It's not like starting from scratch. This is a team that is playing nearly .600 baseball."
An agreement between the Rays and St. Petersburg for Tropicana Field runs through 2027. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said the city will not fund a new stadium for a part-time team.
"We're in a different world," Bronfman said. "Hats off to Major League Baseball for being so innovative in their thinking and their progressive nature of even considering a concept like this. It's very groundbreaking when you talk about sport."
Sternberg envisions open-air stadiums in both cities but noted there are no plans to pay for them. He said an ideal target date would have everything in place for the 2024 season.
Bronfman said he has no say in the timetable but hopes a deal can be reached soon, pointing out that his father, the original Expos owner, is 88 years old.
"We have an incredible city," Bronfman said. "We have a strong economy, we can support baseball and now we have a chance to support it in partnership with Tampa Bay. I think it's a very, very good opportunity for us and I think Major League Baseball believes this opportunity exists in Montreal and they are giving their support to our city. So for me that's a strong start and we will see how things develop."
The Rays have played at Tropicana Field since their inception in 1998 and drew their smallest-ever home crowd of 5,786 against Toronto last month.
Sternberg said this week it's possible the Bronfman group could join the current Rays' ownership if the sister-city plans succeed, but he will keep controlling interest.
"I think even in a split scenario, it's a return of baseball permanently to Montreal," Bronfman said.