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Rays’ Split-Season Proposal Raises Questions for Rowdies Fans

by MIKE PENDLETON and JAKE NUTTING

UPDATE:Rays President and Rowdies Vice Chairman Brian Auld spoke with Unused Substitutes about the Ray’s proposal may or may not mean for the Rowdies. Read the interview here.

What do we know? Well, not much…or at least not what we most want to know.

With the Rays/Montreal press conference now in the rear-view mirror, more questions were raised than were answered.

Loosely we know this much: Rays and Rowdies Owners Stuart Sternberg and company believe 81 home games of baseball is unsustainable here. They don’t see much optimism in a full season future in St. Petersburg or even across the bridge in Tampa. They see a split season with Montreal as the only way to keep regular season baseball here in the Bay area to some degree. And there are a lot of details they haven’t quite worked out.

The Rowdies weren’t specifically named by any of the Rays brass in Tuesday’s press conference, but there were some bits of information directly from Sternberg himself in this potential framework that would certainly impact the Rowdies’ future.

  • According to Sternberg, there is no path forward for full-season MLB in Tampa Bay. A hypothetical split season would start here in Spring and last for 35 games with June to October being played entirely in Montreal.
  • Sternberg stated early into the Q&A portion of the press conference that their preferred direction is a new 30,000 seat outdoor stadium (no dome) that would host both baseball and soccer, optimally opening in 2024.
  • When asked about the idea of a refurbished or expanded Al Lang stadium being a part of this split-season proposal, Sternberg said it is an “absolute possibility,” as is a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site or elsewhere in Tampa Bay (Again, it seems as if they’ve barely started to dig into many of the details of this project.)

This obviously leaves Rowdies fans with a lot to wonder. Could the Rowdies possibly leave Downtown St. Petersburg? What would a multi-purpose baseball/soccer stadium look like? How would the sightlines be? Will we have to go back to playing on a sodded over pitch? Is that 30,000 capacity is just for USL Championship play? Have they even begun to start the legwork of reigniting the failed MLS2StPete bid?

To that first question on the Rowdies possibly leaving Downtown St. Pete. Bill Edwards’ parting gift to fans on his way out was the provision in the sale that the Rays commit to keeping the Rowdies in St Pete at Al Lang for five years even thought the club’s use agreement to manage the city-owned venue is set to expire at the end of 2020. (Rays President and Rowdies Vice-Chairman Brian Auld told The Unused Substitutes in a recent interview that they plan on renewing the agreement in the near future.) That would mean they’re obligated to keep the club where it is through the 2023 season. Of course, Sternberg did mention their aim to have their new shared stadium up and running in 2024. Read into that what you will.

Let’s try to look a little on the brighter side of the situation. While all of this is an understandably tough pill to swallow for Rays faithful, it might not all be worst case scenario for the Rowdies.

The Rays moving from an 81 game home schedule to a 35 game home schedule would open up a ton of inventory for the Rowdies. There would only be a slight overlap of seasons from April to May, before the Rays head up north. Provided ownership hasn’t burned bridges along the way, soccer and baseball could occupy the stadium for a majority of the year and complement each other instead of competing with each other for dates and the wallets of fans.

From a stadium perspective, if the Rowdies are going to continue to grow, something was going to have to give when it came to Al Lang anyway. The Rowdies have less capacity than every single team in front of them in the USL Championship attendance rankings (except Phoenix). There is only one suite to sell to any corporate entities looking to attend. Even in minor-league sports, suites are a huge driver for local sponsorships. A brand new multi-purpose stadium (with a reported price tag of $500M-$600M) would surpass the cost of all soccer-centric venues built here in the US to date, but comes with a lot of complications. On the plus side, new additions like a standing supporters section or canopies could be built, and perhaps smart engineering could remedy sightlines for both sports.

The pitch itself would present the biggest challenge, one that makes most bristle at the mere suggestion. Louisville City is currently constructing a new stadium to get out of its current baseball venue. Las Vegas Lights FC is already looking to get out of its former baseball stadium, even after retrofitting it to be more soccer friendly. There are a litany of examples of baseball and soccer struggling to coexist in the same venue. You’d be hard-pressed to think of a situation where it works in a sustainable way, and no one wants to be stuck in a NYCFC/Yankee stadium situation longterm. If Sternberg and his staff truly believe it can work, they need to make the case that they’ve thought it through and why it would be a positive for Rowdies fans, who have come to think of Al Lang as their home after the significant overhaul in the Edwards era.

After today’s press conference, we still know too little to be outright concerned, but we have just enough to be anxious. None of this would signal an end to the Rowdies. By most accounts the ownership transition to this point has been more good than bad. The speculation that the Rays purchased the Rowdies just to get a second bite at Al Lang was rampant when the sale was announced, but just about every move since then has indicated the Rays view the Rowdies as their own valuable asset, with their own unique potential. Today, though, the Rowdies and their fans have been thrown straight into this Rays quagmire. More than anything it’s just a profound bummer after years of progress and steady growth to be mired in someone else’s drama.

It doesn’t help that no one seemed overly concerned about what it all means for Rowdies fans today. With a host of new stadium possibilities, and the suggestion of a shared stadium confirmed as a possiblity, potential local moves in the conversation, and not a whisper of the team’s name at the podium today, Rowdies fans would sleep a whole lot better if we knew someone was thinking about our future.

Jake Nutting
Writer at Large for The Unused Substitutes and NASL Beat Writer for Empire of Soccer. Fullbacks are people too.