Rowdies put on a show with MLS expansion presentation

IMAGE, TAMPA BAY ROWDIES/MATT MAY

by JAKE NUTTING

The odds of Tampa Bay Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards simply delivering the team’s application to become one of the next franchises in Major League Soccer in a nondescript folder and calling it a day were always slim.

With 11 other bidders submitting applications to the league this week, Edwards wanted to be sure he found a way to make an impression with his presentation.

So on Monday morning Edwards, team executives and a handful of other team staff members boarded a private plane for New York City with the intention of delivering their application with some flair.

The first stop after touching down at Teterboro Airport was to meet up with leaders of the supporters group Ralph’s Mob in Times Square, where a large electronic billboard has been displaying the team’s hashtag #MLS2StPete since Wednesday.

Edwards acknowledged the plan for Monday came together quickly, as did the application after MLS surprised all bidders by setting the short deadline last month.

“We’ve had less than 30 days to get [the application] done,” Edwards told EoS. “We’re here, we made it. The ink is probably still drying on that application. We were working on it yesterday afternoon to get every aspect together.”

Pedestrians looked on and gave curious glances as the soccer team from Central Florida quickly organized for a photo session in front of the billboard. Hired dancers in sequin outfits lined up alongside team officials for pictures and then scrambled for their heavy coats as refuge from the frigid air. Steps away from where knockoff Elmo and assorted Disney characters typically pose for pictures with tourists, Rowdies mascot Pete the Pelican got dressed for the event out in the open. Thankfully no children were present to have the illusion ruined for them.

Included with the formal application presented to MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott was an iPad loaded with one video highlighting the unique scenery of the region and another outlining the rich tradition of the Rowdies in Tampa Bay. Packaged along with the bid materials were over 200 letters of support from politicians, prominent local figures and supporters.

Following the meeting with Abbott, pediatric cancer survivor Cole Eicher and his family met with MLS WORKS, Major League Soccer’s community outreach initiative, to discuss his experience working with the Rowdies to fight childhood cancer. Eicher signed an honorary contract with the Rowdies when he was battling cancer back in 2014. Now cancer free, Eicher has worked with the Rowdies the last two years to raise over $200,000 to fund pediatric cancer research through the Go Gold initiative.

The Rowdies also came bearing gifts to the MLS office staff, as a few crates of fresh Florida oranges were left in the staff cafeteria. MLS employees seemed to get a kick out of the demonstration. A handful even made sure to grab a selfie with Pete the Pelican.

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The question is whether the Rowdies showmanship will have any impact on their MLS bid.

MLS is hardline when it comes to maintaining a sense of objectivity in analyzing expansion markets. The production of value will garner some attention, but the final decision will still come down to the merits of their bid.

Edwards is confident the details of the team’s bid, particularly the proposal to privately-finance a 10,000-seat expansion to their existing venue, is enough to give them an edge over other markets that are looking for funding or land deals to build from the ground up.

“I think being the 11th biggest market, and being one of the oldest teams in the country, and having our own stadium are important,” he said. “There’s a lot of other guys who don’t have a place to play yet. They’ve got plans. Our plans are to expand, not to fund an entire stadium or figure out land issues. So I think we’re a lot further ahead than a lot of people. I think that gives us a little bit of an edge.”

The Rowdies are also making strides toward an academy in a new partnership with Tampa Bay United, a well-established youth program in the region. Former U.S. U-17 Assistant Coach Keith Fulk has been tapped as the director of the newly-combined U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams for the Rowdies and Tampa Bay United. Edwards didn’t offer many details of the team’s academy plans except to say it should be a wonderful thing for the community.

The St. Petersburg magnate was also tight-lipped about the investment group he’s assembling for the team’s MLS push. Earlier in the month, Edwards stated he’d had talks with a long list of investors, both local and non-local, about joining the ownership group. Those discussions are still ongoing, but are likely to advance now that the work of completing the exhaustive MLS application is done.

“Right now it’s a matter of who do we want to let in and how do we want to go about it,” he stated. “There’s a lot of people in New York that have contacted me, but I’m talking to local investment first because I like keeping things local. It’s part of our town. It’s better to have people who are local to work with, not necessarily totally, but local investment is nice to have.”

Even with a robust bid, MLS’ expansion race is stacked with attractive markets that tick quite a few of the boxes the league is looking for in its next four teams. San Diego turned in its application to MLS Commissioner Don Garber personally at an event one day after the city hosted the U.S. national team’s friendly against Serbia.

The remaining bidders are expected to turn in the paperwork for expansion consideration on Tuesday. Raleigh-Durhan, Charlotte, Phoenix, Detroit, San Antonio, Sacramento, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Nashville have all declared their intention to submit an application.