The Rays have reached a deal with St. Petersburg that would allow the team to search for new stadium sites on both sides of Tampa Bay.
The team has played since its inception in Pinellas County at what now is called Tropicana Field, and has often ranked near the bottom in major league home attendance. The agreement, slated for a vote Thursday by the St. Petersburg City Council, would allow the Rays to evaluate sites on the east side of the bay in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located.
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The deal, outlined by St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman, also established how much the Rays would have to pay the city if they leave their current home before their Tropicana Field lease expires in 2027.
Kriseman stressed Tuesday the so-called "memorandum of understanding" does not allow the Rays to consider moving outside of the Tampa Bay region.
In the past, the team has been able to consider only alternative sites in St. Petersburg and surrounding Pinellas County.
"This agreement simply does what the Rays have been asking to do — evaluate locations in Pinellas and Hillsborough County," the mayor said. "Evaluate means non-binding discussions only. It does not allow them to enter into any agreements with any other locations."
The agreement is valid through Dec. 31, 2017, and includes stipulations that it would no longer be valid or admissible in court if the Rays "go anywhere other than in the region."
Payments to escape the remainder of the lease at Tropicana Field would be based on how many years remain on the existing contract, beginning with $4 million per season until December 2018. It would decrease to $3 million per year from 2019-22 and $2 million from 2023-26.
Speaking in San Diego at baseball's annual winter meetings, Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said he doesn't have a gut feeling on how the city council will vote. He noted getting to "this point ... has been three mayors and six years in the making."
But if the deal is rejected by city council, thereby stalling efforts to examine options on the other side of the bay, Sternberg said the region eventually could wind up losing the team.
"Look, I'm not leaving, I'm not moving this team. I'm not taking this team out of the area," Sternberg said. "But that's me, and the chances of me owning this team in 2023 if we don't have a new stadium are probably nil. Somebody else will move it. It's not a threat, it's just the reality."
Kriseman called the deal an "unprecedented, good and fair agreement for the city." He also did not rule out the possibility the Rays could wind up remaining in St. Petersburg, perhaps in a new stadium built on the Tropicana Field site.
Rays president Brian Auld joined Kriseman at a news conference at the domed stadium.
"Today marks a significant step forward. But this is just the beginning of a long process," Auld said, adding that the team intends take a "fresh look at all possibilities" in Pinellas and Hillsborough, which is also home to Tampa Bay's other two major pro franchises, the NFL's Buccaneers and NHL's Lightning.
Despite making the playoffs four times since 2008 and finishing with winning records six of the past seven seasons, Tampa Bay has had trouble drawing fans.
The Rays averaged a major league-worst 17,857 this year — down from 19,255 in 2012 and 18,645 in 2013, when they also were last in attendance.
Tampa Bay and Oakland are the last teams seeking new stadiums since the ballpark-building boom began in the 1990s. The Athletics would like to move to San Jose, California, but have been blocked by the San Francisco Giants, who hold the territorial rights.