Tampa Bay Rowdies Enter the MLS Expansion Race

IMAGE, TAMPA BAY ROWDIES

by JAKE NUTTING

The Tampa Bay Rowdies have yet to play a single game in the USL and they’re already courting MLS for one of the league’s coveted expansion slots.

Principal owner Bill Edwards hosted an event in downtown St. Petersburg Tuesday night to go public with his ambition to move the Rowdies up to the first division after years of planning and discussions with MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

“We are committed to expanding the world’s game right here in downtown St. Petersburg, and we feel strongly that joining Major League Soccer is the next logical step,” said Edwards. “We have met with MLS executives, including Commissioner Don Garber, and it is clear that they are looking at cities that have demonstrated their support for soccer via season ticket memberships, single game ticket sales and sponsorships.”

Unlike many of the teams bidding to join the MLS ranks, Edwards’ pitch includes an ambitious $80 million stadium plan that he claims will be funded entirely with private money. The only catch is Edwards will only follow through with the investment if he’s able to garner the public support necessary to convince MLS to grant him a spot in the league. St. Petersburg residents would also need to vote to award Edwards’ managing company a longterm lease at Al Lang Stadium where the team has played for the last six year before any upgrades would move forward. Edwards’ current lease at Al Lang runs through 2018.

At the moment Edwards’ focus is squarely on building up the team’s season ticket numbers. The Rowdies ranked third in the NASL this year with an average attendance of 5,878, but only had 3,600 season ticket holders. In a joint effort to boost season ticket sales and spread support of their MLS push, the Rowdies are asking fans to utilize the hashtag #MLS2StPete on social media.

“Major League Soccer is watched all over the world,” noted Edwards. “This move will bring national and international exposure to St. Petersburg, while also boosting tourism in the area. Bringing Major League Soccer to St. Petersburg will be a great economic driver for the entire region, and will serve as another platform to unify fans on both sides of the bay.”

The social media campaign may only mention the city the Rowdies call home, but it’s the Tampa Bay region as a whole that would be enticing to MLS leadership. Tuesday’s announcement from the Rowdies included a video with Garber saying at an event in Tampa last month that the proximity of a potential MLS team in Tampa Bay to the successful Orlando City SC would be a benefit, similar to the rivalry NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls have formed in the last two years.

Garber also made it clear in the video that Orlando’s territorial rights to Tampa’s MLS rights would be easy to get past if talks ever came to that point.

Tampa Bay joins a long list of markets with a stated goal of reaching MLS. North Carolina FC made the same announcement hours before the Rowdies, while Sacramento, San Antonio, St Louis, Detroit Miami and Nashville have all been putting together their own bids for a while.


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