How viable is Tampa Bay as an MLS expansion city? An in-depth look at whether the league should return to a place where it once failed.
Is there a symbol that sums up Major League Soccer’s early years better than that outer-space video game mutant bat thing? Nonsense names, loud colors and incongruous branding were just the beginning as top-tier soccer returned to the U.S. in 1996. There were the cavernous NFL stadiums, the aging foreigners, the unheralded American journeymen, lean times and lots of unpredictability. And shootouts. And 1990s soccer hair.
The Tampa Bay Mutiny had it all, from their incomprehensible logo and neon/puke green jerseys to the stylish Carlos Valderrama-inspired soccer inside the original Big Sombrero. But like MLS 1.0, the Mutiny didn’t last. The club was unable to find an investor, attendance dipped into the four digits and at the end of the 2001 season, it was contracted along with the Miami Fusion.
A lot has changed since MLS 1.0, and a lot has changed in Tampa and St. Petersburg. And so the Bay is back on the league’s expansion radar. Led by flamboyant local real estate developer Bill Edwards, the bid is anchored by the reborn Tampa Bay Rowdies, who will play this year in the USL after spending six seasons in the NASL. The Rowdies’ Al Lang Stadium, a converted waterfront baseball park, is their current and future home. It’s located in the St. Pete half of the country’s 11th largest media market and 18th-most populous metro area (around 3 million).
Now that Atlanta United is ready to take the field, it’s significant that Tampa Bay is the largest media market in the U.S. without an MLS team. Yes, it ranks higher than Miami, Detroit and Phoenix. And that’ll turn heads at MLS headquarters, where boosting TV ratings is paramount. It’s also worth noting, and Edwards did so when speaking with SI.com, that the Bay no longer is “God’s Waiting Room.” Residents aged 20-34—the Millennials MLS covets—now comprises around 19% of the region’s population, according to a 2015 study, and that’s expected to rise more than 10 points in the next five years. The region was home to only four Fortune 500 companies as of 2015.
Edwards had never seen a soccer game when he purchased the Rowdies in 2013.
“The community seemed to love [the team]. It was in trouble. My background is taking things that are broken and fixing them,” Edwards said. “I fell in love with the sport. I got hooked on it … I fell for the sport and I understand it. I understand the players. I understand the coaches. I understand a lot of things. I’m a hands-on owner. I’m the guy sitting behind the bench watching the game. I’m the guy on the field giving the sweaty guys a hug, saying ‘Good job! Good hustle!’ I love the game. I love the people in it.”
Edwards, 71, is all in. He was raised in Massachusetts, was wounded while serving in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and eventually entered the mortgage business. He’s now one of the Bay Area’s most prominent businessmen thanks to his significant real estate holdings and involvement in high-profile projects, the arts and now sports.
Edwards said he’s interested in bringing aboard additional investors—“the more the merrier,” he stressed—but he has every intention of remaining majority owner.
“There’s a lot of wealth in this town, and we all know each other pretty much. There are a lot of conversations going on,” he said. “This isn’t a job for me. This is a great experience and I’m really enjoying it after working my butt off for so long, to have some fun. I’m having a lot of fun with it and this is great way to give back to the city and the community.”
Beyond the ownership group, Edwards made news last week with the hiring of former MLS and U.S. Soccer Federation executives Brett Lashbrook and Forrest Eber, who are highly regarded for their work overseeing Orlando City’s transition from USL to MLS.
The Rowdies have one of the simplest, cheapest stadium plans among the expansion hopefuls. They already have refurbished seats, the video board, locker rooms and more at Al Lang, which sits on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront. Now Edwards is committed to putting $80 million (plus cost overruns) into expanding the stadium from around 7,200 seats to 18,000. He told SI.com that he intends to ask for no public money and that the city will be on the hook only for some infrastructure upgrades such as sewage.
Working with ICON Venue and Populous, both of which have been involved in the construction and/or renovation of numerous MLS stadiums, Edwards and the Rowdies intend to turn Al Lang into a facility with a unique configuration that leaves one corner open toward the Bay and the other toward the city skyline. Edwards has purchased a nearby parking garage to boost the number of spots and said he is financing a special local election this spring, which is required when there’s any significant construction or lease agreement on the city’s waterfront property. Edwards said he expects to operate the stadium under a use or lease agreement with St. Petersburg.
Al Lang is next to the Mahaffey Theater, the venue that relies on support from The Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, and the Salvador Dalí museum and is a few blocks from St. Petersburg’s downtown dining and nightlife district on and around Central Ave.
Sports and Soccer Scene
When the original Rowdies kicked off in 1975, the Tampa Bay area had no teams in any of the country’s major sports leagues. It now has three—the NFL’s Buccaneers, NHL’s Lightning and MLB’s Rays. Each has had periods of success and struggle, and at the moment the Lightning are the most consistent winners and play to capacity in Tampa’s Amalie Arena. But down the street from Al Lang, the Rays have the worst attendance in baseball. The Bucs drew an average of 60,624 this season to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
It’s an unpredictable, eclectic sports town(s). The population is there, support wavers at times, but success is rewarded. It’s also an event town(s). Four Super Bowls, three Final Fours (one men’s, two women’s), two Frozen Fours and Monday’s College Football Playoff final, among others, have been staged in Tampa or St. Pete.
Like other sports, soccer’s results in the area have varied. The original Rowdies debuted in ’75 and immediately won the NASL championship. Average attendance broke 10,000 that year and peaked above 28,000 in 1980. Then the decline began, the NASL folded in ’84 and the Rowdies spent several more years as a minor league and indoor team before finally shutting down 10 years later.
In 1996, MLS and the Mutiny came to town. Again, things started well. Valderrama and Co. won the Supporters' Shield that first season and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. But average attendance never broke 14,000 and the league was unable to find an investor to operate the team. The financial losses continued through the 2001 season, after which MLS shut down the club. Malcolm Glazer, who owned the Bucs and soon would take over Manchester United, negotiated with the league but ultimately declined to save the team.
The Rowdies were resurrected in 2010 and joined the NASL the following season. Despite winning a championship in 2012, attendance was below 4,000 per game. Then Edwards stepped in, put some money into the club and stadium and plotted his entry into MLS. This season, the Rowdies averaged 5,878 at Al Lang, which ranked third in the league.
The U.S. men's national team has played six times in the Tampa Bay area, most recently in 2012, when it defeated Antigua & Barbuda in a World Cup qualifier. Average attendance for the six games staged from 1985 through ’12 is 22,508. Raymond James Stadium will host the U.S. as part of a CONCACAF Gold Cup doubleheader in July. The area’s other national team tie sits a few miles south in Bradenton, which is home to U.S. Soccer’s U-17 residency program.
The size of the market and Edwards’ stadium plan are huge plusses. MLS wants ratings and a population base, and the fact that the Rowdies would play in a downtown, waterfront venue that will cost half as much as many other grounds is unique and extremely appealing. Edwards’s wealth, enthusiasm and commitment are notable.
Tampa Bay would have an obvious rivalry with Orlando City, which has been heated at times even though they’ve never played in the same league. There have been preseason matchups and one U.S. Open Cup meeting, a 2014 affair won by Orlando. The enmity extends beyond the soccer field.
Edwards said sponsorship won’t be a problem.
“The biggest problem I’ve had in this town is not being in MLS,” he said.
Also, there are the Rowdies’ amazing green-and-yellow hooped jerseys. MLS needs those.
Orlando’s proximity also could be a negative, especially if City objects to an MLS team a little more than 100 miles away. The Lions reportedly have the rights to the Tampa Bay TV market, and that’s not necessarily something they’d be willing to cede without compensation. The two metro areas combined have a population of around 5.3 million, roughly equivalent to a city like Atlanta or Boston.
Then there’s Edwards himself, whose tendency to make waves could make for interesting times in an MLS boardroom that prefers things slow, steady and conservative. Edwards is outspoken, ambitious and no stranger to courting controversy, either in the media or in actual courts. Edwards is well-known for his philanthropy. He’s also no stranger to the witness stand. He’s a larger-than-life figure hoping to join a league influenced heavily by the stoic and/or quiet Phil Anschutz, Clark Hunt, and Robert and Jonathan Kraft.
Edwards ultimately left the NASL because he said he couldn’t find common ground with his fellow owners. But he made no friends with stunts like July’s team-produced video highlighting officiating mistakes and a press release that called referees “inconsistent, incompetent and unprofessional.” It seemed very un-major league. At the same time, he demonstrated what an asset he can be through his renovations at Al Lang and the signing of a player like English veteran Joe Cole.
Can his passion be channeled?
Edwards acknowledged he’s “not a typical owner,” but he stressed that his respect for MLS’s growth leaves him with little incentive to rock the boat.
“Why would I question MLS and what they do? They’ve got the road map to being successful,” he said. “They’ve got their act together. When I deal with idiots, I let them know I think they’re idiots. But when you’re talking to people who are versed in these things and know what they’re doing, I take advantage of it. I want to be with people who are smarter than me, who have more experience, who have their act together. Than I can invest my money wisely … I’m three years in. They’re 20. That’s why I’m taking my hard-earned cash and putting it in the right place.”
“We love what Bill has been able to do. Al Lang Stadium is super cool. You can’t get a better environment, right on the waterfront. This is the largest market that we’re not in. If you look at the top 15-18 DMAs, this is the largest of those where we don’t have a team in, so that’s intriguing to us,” Don Garber said at a University of South Florida lecture in October.
“We’ve shown that we’re more successful in New York with two teams in New York. The rivalry between Red Bulls and New York City FC has helped the league and has certainly helped both clubs. And I think we’re going to see this thing just explode in LA with two teams in Los Angeles. In Orlando’s case, I’m convinced that at the time that we decide that we want to come back into this region, we’ll sit down and have a conversation with the owners there and figure out a way to make that work as we’ve done throughout the expanded rollout of our league.”