MLS Expansion Profile: Tampa/St. Petersburg

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From Last Word on Soccer, buy John Bava

2017 is set to be a historic year for Major League Soccer expansion. The league will announce two new clubs later in the year, chosen among the 12 cities who submitted applications ahead of the January 31 deadline. Those teams will begin play in 2020.

Two more applicant cities will be granted franchises at a later date. That will eventually bring the league to 28 teams, a stated goal of MLS commissioner Don Garber. Here at Last Word SC, all 12 bids will be analyzed to see which ones have the strongest cases to be among the four teams selected.

With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the bid from Tampa/St. Petersburg.

MLS Expansion Profile: Tampa/St. Petersburg

Ownership Group and Stadium Plan

The initiative to bring MLS back to Florida’s Bay Area is spearheaded by Tampa Bay Rowdies chairman and CEO Bill Edwards. Edwards is a prominent south Florida real estate developer who bought a controlling interest in the Rowdies back in 2013. His team made headlines last season when they announced they were leaving the troubled NASL for USL starting in 2017.

Edwards remains involved in a dispute with the NASL and it remains to be see whether this will affect his bid. The league is named a defendant in a lawsuit Edwards filed against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers corporate entity, Miami FC, LLC, over failure to pay back funds he loaned them last season. A hearing in the case is set for March 1st. The cash-strapped club is on hiatus for 2017 as it attempts to secure new ownership.

Irrespective of these external factors, the bid coming from Tampa Bay is impressive. Part of it involves Edwards’ future plans for the Rowdies’ current venue, Al Lang Stadium. The repurposed minor league baseball park on St. Petersburg’s waterfront has been the team’s home since 2011. But it will need upgrades to meet MLS standards.

Fortunately, the centerpiece of #MLS2StPete is the anticipated facelift to Al Lang Stadium. Part of Edwards’ initial presentation to MLS, entitled “We Brought Our Pitch to You,” included renderings of a renovated soccer-specific facility that expands capacity to 18,000. Edwards has pledged his own money to help fund the improvements which are expected to cost around $80 million.

Current Soccer Environment

Tampa Bay is one of the fastest growing soccer markets in America. That may sound like hyperbole at first glance but a closer look at Rowdies’ attendance over the past four years lends credence to that statement. Since 2013, the Rowdies have realized a 45 percent increase in the number of fans coming through the turnstiles. That’s the third highest jump among US-based clubs in MLS and NASL who’ve played in all four seasons.

The region is a favorite among not only MLS teams for preseason training, but also for international clubs looking to stay fresh during winter break. Just last month, the Rowdies played Bundesliga teams VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen along with Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro in the Florida Cup. Plus, Al Lang Stadium is slated to host the second annual Suncoast Invitational from February 18-25 with five MLS clubs (Chicago Fire, D.C. United, Montreal Impact, Philadelphia Union, and Toronto FC) set to participate.

One need only look a short distance east of Tampa Bay to see an MLS success story in the Sunshine State. It hasn’t taken long for Orlando City SC to take the league by storm from a fan interest standpoint. In both of their MLS seasons so far, they’ve finished second only to Seattle in average attendance. And they’re moving into a brand new soccer-specific stadium beginning in 2017.

Such proximity lends itself to another tempting proposition associated with this bid: a rivalry with Orlando City. There’s nothing better than cultivating passion among fan bases and ratcheting up the intensity on the field than a good old hatefest. And a “Central Florida Derby” can certainly turn into something big moving forward.

Other Contributing Factors

Edwards emphasized in his presentation to MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott that local leaders are firmly behind the bid. He obtained over 200 letters of support from area politicians as part of his application. His pledge to not use public funds in stadium renovations also can be construed as a plus.

Tampa Bay’s rich soccer history should also be taken into consideration. The first iteration of the Rowdies came in the original North American Soccer League. Their first title came as an expansion team in 1975 and they finished runners-up twice. Attendance was among the league’s best, with the team averaging over 20,000 in four of their ten seasons in the NASL.

Overall Chances

Like the other 11 applicant cities, Tampa/St. Petersburg has its strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, there’s clear growth in fan interest over the past few years. That would only be enhanced if MLS came to town. There’s a firm corporate base with four Fortune 500 companies in the area. And the league is already familiar with the Tampa Bay market given the frequency with which teams train in the area during the preseason.

But there are some challenges. If you’re at all familiar with the geography of Tampa Bay, you’re well aware St. Petersburg is only accessible from Tampa via three seven-mile long bridges over the bay. Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays, who’ve played at Tropicana Field in St. Pete since their inception in 1997, have dealt with their fair share of attendance issues in that time.

MLS has been here before. The Tampa Bay Mutiny was one of the league’s ten original teams back in 1996. But, six years later, the team folded amid poor attendance and the league dealing with heavy financial losses, needing to cut costs. Things are on much sounder fiscal footing nowadays, but nevertheless what transpired 16 years ago has to remain in the minds of the decision makers.

In summary, Edwards and his contingent have put together a convincing case for an MLS expansion franchise. There are plenty of aspects of this bid that stand out from the 11 other prospective applicants. Though the competition will be fierce, fans of the beautiful game in the Bay Area can feel confident about Major League Soccer returning to the region in the near future.

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Photo credit: Tampa/St. Petersburg MLS bid stadium rendering video