The Tampa Bay Rays have said a “meaningful step” has been taken towards securing the future of the team in the region, as a deadline was set for an agreement on the novel proposal that would see the Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise split its season with Montreal.

The Rays have met with officials from the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County, with the ‘Sister City’ concept on the agenda. In June, MLB gave the green light for the Rays to pursue the option of splitting its season between Florida and the Canadian city of Montreal, amid the franchise’s ongoing stadium issues.

The Rays currently play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg but have long been seeking a new ballpark. In December 2018, the Rays maintained they were committed to finding a new home in the local area despite admitting they were at “two strikes” following the decision to abandon a project for a $892m (£687.4m/€817.3m) new stadium in Ybor City.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has stated his intention to ensure the Rays honour their agreement to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, while the team is still said to be targeting Ybor City if a new stadium is developed in Hillsborough County.

Commenting on the latest talks, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times: “The goal is to try and have an agreement with all three entities by the end of the year. It’s extremely aggressive. However, having gone through the last several-year exercise, I appreciate the sense of urgency and the goal of trying to reach an agreement as quickly as possible.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor stated the talks left her feeling positive that the Rays could remain in Tampa after 2027. “I’m optimistic about it,” she said. “The Rays want to stay in the Tampa Bay area. We want to keep them in the Tampa Bay area, and we’re going to do everything that we can with the caveat that the citizens’ appetite of paying for a stadium is about zero at this point.”

In a statement, the Rays added: “Today, we took a meaningful step toward securing the future of Rays baseball in Tampa Bay beyond 2027. We appreciate Mayor Castor and Commissioner Hagan’s leadership and look forward to a continued dialogue with city and county stakeholders. We remain focused on the Sister City concept and unwavering in our commitment to work in partnership with the community as this process moves forward.”

Hagan led the talks with the Rays concerning the collapsed Ybor City ballpark project. Regarding the Sister City concept, he said: “The Rays were extremely transparent and we’re excited about the possibility of working together to ensure the team stays here for generations to come. I still believe there are considerable challenges with this concept. However, I think it’s one we need to explore and we’re going to do everything we can to see if we can make it work.”

Castor added: “The focus (of the talks) was on the split season, but I don’t think the full season is off the table yet.”

In May, Groupe de Montréal, an entity seeking to return an MLB franchise to the Canadian city, reached an agreement for a plot of land on which it is seeking to build a stadium. The deal for the land in the Peel Basin area of Montreal has been reached by the Stephen Bronfman-owned Claridge Investments and real estate development firm Devimco.

Bronfman’s father, Charles, initially brought an MLB team to Montreal in 1969. However, the Expos were dissolved in 2004 when the franchise relocated to Washington, D.C. and was rebranded as the Nationals.

Image: Eric Kilby