Bronfman left to mull next steps for Montreal after MLB nixes Rays’ plan

Stephen Brunt joined Sportsnet Central to discuss the MLB's decision to end the Tampa Bay Rays' split-city plan with Montreal.

TORONTO — There’s little room for feelings or sentiment when doing business with the lords of the realm, which is why Stephen Bronfman refused to go the pity-party route after Major League Baseball abruptly gutted Montreal’s sister-city aspirations with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Hustlers go out there. You don’t go, you don’t get,” the CEO of Claridge Inc. said Thursday of the dashed attempt at restoring his city’s lost club. “Sometimes, you don’t get.”

Cold truth, just as icy as the league’s executive council’s rejection of the innovative-but-polarizing team-share plan hatched by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and Bronfman, who became so invested in the concept that he said there was “No Plan B” for securing a club.

“I was all in,” he added during a Zoom call with media in which he alternated between frustration, disappointment, understanding and pride in re-establishing Montreal as a possibility for the game’s power brokers. At the same time, he also sounded spent after getting the project within sight of the finish line only “to get this wall.”

Expansion is now likely the city’s primary pathway and Bronfman, at least in the moment, didn’t seem keen on leading the charge. He spoke of “taking a break” to let the dust settle and “see what happens,” while mentioning that relevant parties know how to reach him.

And, after zeroing in on a business plan for half-a-season of baseball, Bronfman wasn’t ready to proclaim that Montreal was ready and able to support 81 games, either.

“It’s an interesting question,” said Bronfman. “I’ve grown up here. I’ve been through the ups and downs of baseball. I’ve thrown myself 100 per cent into the sister-city concept. I’d have to review it. There’s an expression in French, ‘Ce n’est pas évident, mais c’est possible.’ It’s not something that we studied to the core. We got the data on what we were planning to do. But Montreal is a major-league city. Listen, there’s a will, there’s a way. And I’m hopeful that one day maybe we’ll have baseball back in Montreal. I don’t know which way, in which form. But I know there’s an appetite.”

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Reasonable to question at this point is how willing Major League Baseball is to satisfy that desire, especially given how both Bronfman and Sternberg, during a separate availability, sounded blindsided by the decision.

While initially the idea for the Rays to split their seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal was read by some as a leverage play to end the Rays’ longstanding stadium saga, as time passed even skeptics began to believe that the pursuit was genuine. Commissioner Rob Manfred, during a February 2020 conversation with Sportsnet and the Tampa Bay Times, seemed to offer acceptance when he said, “I don’t think this is a crazy idea,” and added “it is a really legitimate effort to preserve baseball in Florida for benefit of the Rays fans.”

Solving the stadium problem in Tampa while also expanding the game’s international footprint, long one of Manfred’s stated goals, offered “a 2-for-1” that “would be a good thing all the way around.”

For the endeavour to die the way it did, especially after so much work on both the Tampa Bay and Montreal ends of the matter, suggests that Sternberg’s fellow owners, at minimum, viewed the sister-city plan as no more than a bluff and were forced to pull back as Montreal approached a point of no-return.

The plan called for open-air stadiums in both the Bay area and Montreal, and Bronfman’s team was working on a field tied to a larger property development that was gaining traction. But the province has been down this road before — Quebec City is still seeking an NHL team for the already built Colisée Pepsi and just last week was told the league didn’t have any current opportunities — so better to get the rejection now than once shovels are in the ground.

But given the ongoing frustrations both in Tampa Bay and Oakland, what does it say about Montreal’s long-term chances when there’s a real stadium plan and MLB walks away? No league that intends to expand eventually — Manfred has said resolving the issues for the Rays and A’s must come first — would do this to a prospective owner who checks all the boxes.

During that 2020 interview, when asked if Montreal could support a team on its own, Manfred said: “Montreal could be a standalone market. It could be. I think the judgment you have to make if you’re Montreal is, if and when we’re going to 32, and you have an opportunity to have some baseball here, it might be a good plan. They have to make that judgment.”

Bronfman played for the bird in hand and still came up empty.

“There are only two hypotheses that I have, it’s just sort of me spinning with my thoughts and with the guys that I was working with,” Bronfman said of why MLB pulled the plug. “Maybe they just thought at the beginning well, Stuart is just using this concept to put pressure on the Tampa market and maybe wants to renegotiate his deal and maybe it’s not that serious. And when they started to see that it was really serious, they took a step back and said, ‘wow, this is a really outward thinking project. We understand it, but I don’t know if we want to be the first league or guys out there to start something like this.’”

Factor in that the league also has locked out its players amid tire-spinning collective bargaining agreement negotiations, and perhaps the other owners simply felt the project was too risky at this time. A more worrying possibility for Montreal’s boosters is that as the players’ union is calling the league’s revenue sharing a systemic problem because of how it subsidizes low-spending clubs, MLB may very well wonder why not simply wait for the Rays to move to a bigger, surer market like say, Nashville.

There’s not much point in recreating Tampa Bay’s issues in Montreal, with the added trouble of currency discrepancy, for good measure. Such a move could lead to both the sister-city team and the Toronto Blue Jays seeking some equalization relief, and you can bet that’s a complication the other owners want no part of.

Either way, Sternberg and Bronfman are back at the drawing board, the Rays trying yet again to find a new home in Tampa Bay before a move becomes the only option, Montreal to recover from this latest MLB dagger.

“At this point, I kind of put my hands up in the air,” said Bronfman. “I was really sold on the project we were working on. I really, really was. That’s not happening. I haven’t given much thought to anything else. Would I love to see Montreal have a baseball team? Of course I would. How it’s going to happen? I don’t know. Is (a full-time team) viable? I think so. I don’t know. We’re a major-league city. People have my email, have my phone number. I’m happy to help and to discuss. But not today. We need to sort of just sit back. I’ve got a business. I got a family to get to get back to, all that stuff I love to do, which this project was as well.”

Bronfman and his team deserved better. Sternberg and the Rays, too. Montreal deserves a happier ending. But hustlers go and sometimes they don’t get.

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