SALT LAKE CITY — Whether it was sunstroke to blame, or something more serious, logic took a vacation in Florida this week. The Tampa Bay Rays reportedly are considering moving half their home games out of town.
Out of the country too.
Theoretically, the attendance-challenged MLB team would play maybe half its schedule in Montreal, according to ESPN. The Rays need a new stadium and Montreal is amenable to building one. Under the proposal, both would get a new home.
Still, why the Rays think a midseason switch from St. Petersburg to Canada might work is a mystery.
Greenland must have been booked.
The reason Utahns can watch with detached amusement is that they have seen their own one-team, two-market scenario. Maybe the Rays should talk to the Utah Jazz beforehand. Salt Lake’s NBA team tried this 35 years ago.
“I think the message you send to your fan base is that ‘we’re halfway committed to you,’” said Dave Allred, who was the Jazz’s media relations chief for more than two decades.
The year was 1983, and the Jazz were still losing money after relocating from New Orleans four years prior. They struggled to attract a consistent audience in both markets. The logic was that by moving one-fourth of their games to Las Vegas, the Jazz could claim a city they believed was within their footprint. Never mind the Lakers had long owned the town.
One evening, 18,359 attended the Jazz-Lakers game at the Thomas and Mack Center. That was the night Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record.
It didn’t come close to resembling a home crowd for Utah.
Las Vegas seemed a reasonable alternative for Dave Checketts, then a twentysomething Jazz general manager. The glittering desert city is all about money. Allred says the decision to play 11 games there in 1983-84 wasn’t a fishing expedition to see if they could move the franchise.
“It was purely financial,” he said.
Allred recalls complaining to Checketts about fans cheering for the Lakers at Jazz “home” games.
“And they all paid full price,” Checketts said.
The Jazz played 13 games total in Las Vegas, but just two of them in 1984-85. Attendance throughout was slightly lower than in Utah, but it precipitously dropped the second season. Fans in Vegas felt betrayed at the end of the first year when the Jazz shockingly reached the playoffs, but didn’t play any postseason games in Nevada.
The Jazz went on to win their first-round series with Denver, before being eliminated by Phoenix. That launched a streak of 20 straight postseason appearances.
“The financial plan was to keep the team operational by generating revenue,” Allred said. “I don’t think any of us really anticipated what we’d do if we were successful enough to make the playoffs.”
They sold just 3,955 and 4,070 seats for the two regular-season games in 1984-85. Instead of returning for two other scheduled contests that year, they played them at the University of Utah.
Phil Johnson, the longtime Jazz assistant coach, was head coach of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, and an assistant with the Jazz during most of the Las Vegas experiment. He says Omaha “treated us like a home team” during the 40 games in the 1970s when the Kings split games between Midwestern cities.3 comments on this story
Johnson says the only positives he can see with the Rays-to-Montreal plan are that baseball schedules allow longer periods at home, and the move wouldn’t require switching venues more than once a year.
Otherwise, the geographical differences between Florida and Canada are nations — if not worlds — apart.
“I don’t think it’s really good. It really isn’t,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine doing it at that distance.”
He didn’t hate shuttling from Kansas City to Omaha. But moving from the Sunshine State to the Great Frozen North midseason?
Bright minds need to put that idea on ice.