Among industry insiders, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are known as “silent assassins” in the race for the next Major League Soccer expansion team.
While the Rowdies are relative newcomers to the MLS expansion conversation, after formally throwing their hat in the ring December, Patrick Brennan of Cincinnati.com warns that it shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a “hurried and premature” MLS pitch.
The Rowdies’ announcement is a result of years of behind-the-scenes work and investment by both the team and owner Bill Edwards.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s hands down that we belong in MLS and probably ahead of a lot of the guys that are on the list,” Edwards told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
The Rowdies shouldn’t be dismissed easily in the MLS expansion race, Brennan says, and what’s happening on the St. Petersburg waterfront should come as a reminder to Futbol Club Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic FC and others involved in the expansion application process.
While each team is desperately fighting for the same prize, winners will eventually be “moneyed contenders with compelling pitches.” And the strongest parts of Edwards’ pitch are plans for a privately-funded, $80 million expansion of Al Lang Stadium, the iconic baseball field already transformed into a soccer venue that Brennan says is “essentially ready-made for the expansion, which would upgrade the facility and increase capacity from 7,200-plus to about 18,000.”
Edwards also believes the expanded site will be operational by 2019.
Al Lang is also several steps ahead of the game, with $4 million in newly remodeled soccer amenities such as upgraded locker rooms, an in-stadium production studio for match broadcast with up to 13 cameras available. Few baseball-specific features remain at the historic waterfront stadium.
“The biggest day of my life is when I took the batter’s eye out of that place,” Edwards joked. “Everything you could possibly imagine that you could do with that stadium, we did it.”
Remodeling has already brought the stadium up to international playing standards, Brennan writes.
Boosting the Rowdies’ chances is a new report from Missouri governor-elect Eric Greitens ruling out public funding for stadiums, which raise doubts about an expansion slot for St. Louis – one of nine other cities vying for an MLS team.
“We have a lot of people in this town that are very wealthy of their own right and I’m working on putting together a local group of people rather than going to Wall Street. Rather than going to other institutional people,” Edwards told The Enquirer. “Now, I’m not waving them off. I’ll take their money, but in the same instance, if we can put together all the money here, we will.
“The people we pick will be the best people we want to be in our league and in our team. You know, I’m not going to bring people in that I’m not going to get along with … I’m a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy that gets things done.”
“Then again, this is a competition, isn’t it?” Edwards added. “There’s great people in Ohio … but you can’t beat Florida – it doesn’t snow in Florida.”