Tampa Bay Rowdies Chairman and CEO Bill Edwards easily distracted me from my mindless gorging on the spread in upscale St. Pete boutique hotel The Birchwood's packed ballroom Tuesday night, with news that shook the very fabric of the Tampa Bay sports world.
“I don’t like to beat around the bush,” Edwards said in his unapologetic and unrehearsed way as he stepped up to the podium to announce the biggest news in team history. “So, I bring you out this.”
He revealed TV screens, T-shirts, and a backdrop that said #MLS2StPete. Yes, the rumors are true — Edwards has spoken with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, and has all but secured a spot in the top-flight soccer league in the United States and Canada.
“I believe it is time we have Major League Soccer in St. Petersburg,” Edwards said. “There should be major league teams on both sides of the bay. And on the other side of the bay, we’ve got football, we’ve got hockey. On this side of the bay, we’ve got baseball, and hopefully, major league soccer."
“Hopefully” is the operative word here; it’s not officially official yet. It’s just really close, and Edwards is getting us excited.
“We stand a good chance because we have several things in our favor; one, we have a team; two, we have a stadium; three, we have a stadium plan, and fourth, we’re ready to go,” he said.
According to the Rowdies head honcho, MLS is looking for several things; one of which is a stadium plan that meets MLS’s 18,000-seat minimum. Low and behold, Edwards has one of those, too. Presented on screens surrounding the stage were images of a retrofitted 18,000-seat facility, planned for where the current Al Lang Stadium sits. The new stadium would include the current concrete structure currently in place, adding grandstands surrounding the field on the side of the Mahaffey Theater. And the kicker? Edwards plans on funding it privately. I think that bears repeating: Edwards plans on funding the new potential stadium privately.
“I’m not asking for any support from the county, the city, or the state. We’ll do this with private funding like we’ve done with everything else,” Edwards said. “I hope the fans will vote for a free stadium.”
Now here come the difficulties: Al Lang sits on public land. In order for Edwards to build a new structure, it will have to go to a public referendum, meaning the budget-conscious senior citizens on fixed incomes who fear funding projects more than death itself will weigh in on the decision.
And as with any big-city decision, city players also need to be on board; Congressman David Jolly, Mayor Rick Kriseman, and Chamber of Commerce President Christopher Steinocher all heaped approval upon Edwards and his plan.
“Among the top 10 or 11 top TV markets in the country, this is the only one without an MLS team,” Jolly said. “And I think it needs one.”
“As a city on the rise, the growing entrepreneurial spirit and demographic, MLS would be the perfect fit here in St. Pete,” Mayor Kriseman said.
As mentioned, the deal is not done. Hefty expansion fees still need be paid. Referendums still need to be passed. A franchise needs to be officially awarded to the Rowdies by MLS. Edwards meets with the league in January, which could finalize the plans.
But the Rowdies and fans must be patient. Edwards says he's eyeing 2019 for the team’s MLS debut, and in the meantime, they will compete in the United Soccer Leagues, which could possibly be announced as the nation’s second-division soccer league before the year’s end.
There is a lot to do, but Edwards, as usual, exudes confidence. When asked if there was a contingency plan, Edwards responded with “I’m ready to go.
“I’m asking you to get on board and ride this train with us."
What’s the last thing Edwards needs?
“I need 18,000 fans.”
That shouldn’t be a big problem, right, Tampa Bay?