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Can four young sports franchises find enough fans in Tampa Bay?

The Las Vegas Locomotives, left, and Florida Tuskers huddle during a game at Tropicana Field. The empty seats tell how tough it can be for a new team to break into a sports market.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

The Las Vegas Locomotives, left, and Florida Tuskers huddle during a game at Tropicana Field. The empty seats tell how tough it can be for a new team to break into a sports market.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are rebuilding after a lousy season. The Tampa Bay Rays are scrapping to remain a contender in the American League's overpriced Eastern Division. And the Tampa Bay Lightning are in fourth place in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference.

As Tampa Bay's three high-profile pro sports franchises fight to be competitive and appeal to recession-weary fans, here comes a whole new crop of sports teams trying to carve a fan niche out of this metro market.

In such hard-pressed economic times, can Tampa Bay's sports customer be spread across so many more teams? This year will be a challenge.

The on-again, off-again American Basketball Association announced last week that it will add a team in Tampa Bay for the 2010-2011 season. A revived Tampa Bay pro soccer franchise will play this year in the new North American Soccer League.

Though the Arena Football League shut down in summer, a new indoor league has emerged with a Tampa Bay franchise ready to play in April. And the Tampa Bay Rays branched out last year with a stake in a United Football League team in Orlando that plays some of its games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

That's a ton of new sports to be absorbed at once. Here's a peek at the young franchises:

•?The American Basketball Association last week said the new Tampa Bay team this season will be owned by Sports Equity Partners LLC, headed by managing partner Carlton Fleming. Fleming was a minor league player with the New York Yankees in the 1990s before he left baseball to work in investment banking and consulting. The ABA claims the Tampa Bay franchise will be the first of 10 ABA teams owned and operated by Sports Equity in the Southeast.

•?The Tampa Bay Rowdies had their soccer heyday in the 1970s but disbanded in the 1990s. The team, one of nine, is back this year in the North American Soccer League. The Rowdies say they will play in a stadium with 5,500 seats and 16 luxury suites. It was supposed to be built in the Town 'N Country part of Hillsborough County, but the team last week dropped the plan because of county opposition. The search for a new site continues. Team owners include Andrew Nestor of Citrus Sports Group.

•?After a one-year absence, the Tampa Bay Storm will play in the new Arena Football One league. The home opener at the St. Pete Times Forum is April 16 against Dallas.

•?The Tampa Bay Rays grabbed a piece of Orlando's Florida Tuskers franchise, while the United Football League itself holds 50 percent-plus stakes in all of its teams so far. It's not officially a Tampa Bay team, but the Tuskers will play a few games each season here at the Trop.

Combined, they're a Big Gulp: two football teams, a soccer team and a basketball team. If their plans sound vague, well, the year is young — and so are the teams. But that's the way of such franchises not widely followed or even in the public's mind yet.

It will take luck, savvy marketing, cheap tickets, quality play and a rebounding economy to even begin to develop a solid fan base. Good luck.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Can four young sports franchises find enough fans in Tampa Bay? 01/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 7:50am]
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