Thursday, July 19, 2018
Business

It's Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Tampa Bay Rays in scramble for fans, money in St. Pete sports market

There was a shudder in the pecking order of Tampa Bay's sports economy this past week. Let's set the scene:

Who: St. Petersburg power player, owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Sundial downtown shopping plaza Bill Edwards, and his right hand man Rick Baker.

What: A direct pitch to hundreds of St. Petersburg businesses to support Edwards in his campaign to win a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion slot for his Rowdies, The franchise currently was a member of the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) but last fall announced it would join the U.S. Soccer League. MLS is the top tier of pro soccer in this country.

Where: Center stage at St. Pete's Mahaffey Theater (run by Edwards' Big3 Entertainment Group) during Tuesday's annual meeting of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

***

The sports climate is shifting rapidly in St. Petersburg. As the Tampa Bay Rays get more serious about looking elsewhere for a new baseball stadium, the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team is looking to solidify its claim as the future professional sports team in downtown St. Pete.

The result is a new dynamic emerging between the Rowdies and Rays, two sports teams located within a mile of one another in a rapidly evolving city. Each sports franchise is trying at the same time to win the hearts, dollars and attendance from St. Pete's (and Tampa Bay's) business community and residents.

This past Tuesday evening, I was not anticipating a big sales pitch from the Mahaffey stage by Edwards and Baker during the St. Pete chamber meeting. But there it was. Edwards, without doubt the most influential business leader of St. Petersburg in recent years, joined with his top employee, former St. Pete mayor Baker, in a tag-team marketing presentation to a captive audience of hundreds of attending St. Pete businesses.

Their 3-prong message?

First, back the Rowdies in its current effort to bump up from the fading NASL to the MLS tier of soccer. Edwards and his as yet unidentified ownership group will submit their MLS application Monday, Jan. 30, just ahead of the end-of month deadline for all interested MLS bidders.

Second, commit to Rowdies season tickets as a tangible sign of support for an MLS team in St. Petersburg. Barring that, sign a letter of support to accompany the MLS application.

Third, buy tickets for and support the upcoming "Rowdies Suncoast Invitational" later in February. It features five MLS soccer clubs playing at Al Lang Stadium, the Rowdies home field. It's the second year for the invitational. And, as Edwards told the chamber crowd, MLS officials will be watching attendance to gauge how bullish the bay area is for soccer.

Edwards and Baker seem pretty confident the Rowdies have a good chance at an expansion slot. Tampa Bay, they say, is the country's 11th largest media market (important for TV coverage of games), the biggest market currently competing for an expansion slot.

The other big weapon in the Rowdies arsenal is that Edwards has already proposed a dramatic redesign of Al Lang Stadium into an 18,000-capacity Rowdies stadium, It would fit in the existing footprint of Al Lang and retain its open view of the downtown waterfront.

Best of all, Edwards says he will pay for the new stadium, priced at up to $80 million. In a bigger world of pro sports teams and owners clamoring for public funding for new stadiums, that makes the Edwards' offer all the more compelling.

As part of the broader pitch leading up to the MLS application, Edwards this past week purchased a billboard in Manhattan's Times Square displaying the hashtag for the team's social media campaign to join MLS — #MLS2StPete. The billboard is just a few blocks from the headquarters of Major League Soccer.

Here are my questions: If the Rays, which own last place in Major League Baseball season attendance in recent years, do eventually opt to pursue a new stadium elsewhere, perhaps in Tampa or Hillsborough County, do the Rowdies then become St. Pete's "hometown" team? That would leave the Tampa side of this metro market with the Rays, the Bucs and the Bolts as home to all three top tier sports franchises. St. Pete has a "Save the Rays" campaign called Baseball Forever intended to show solidarity for the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg (presumably with a new stadium).

But now the Rowdies are knocking on the doors of the very same area businesses, many of them modest in size, to support their MLS quest.

Many of the larger companies in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County already support the Bucs and the Lightning in Tampa. Pro football fever runs high in Tampa Bay and has picked up since the arrival of quarterback Jameis Winston and signs of improving play jn the field. The Lightning, often contenders for the playoffs, are considered one of the best run sports franchises in the country.

Traditionalist fans argue the Rays, as an MLB franchise, are an important icon for the greater Tampa Bay economy and represent a long history of baseball in this part of Florida. But that does not explain the team's weak attendance and growing criticism of aging Tropicana Field in an era of competitive stadiums.

To some, soccer is a second tier sport. But Edwards points out that soccer is America's fastest growing major sport.

He knows a good investment when he sees it. In 2015, Forbes magazine reported that MLS team owners have been investing heavily in the league. The result? The average MLS team was then worth $157 million, up more than 50 percent in just two years.

The Rays are worth far more, but carry some baggage. Forbes valued the baseball team in 2016 at $650 million — the least of 30 MLB franchises.

Will some businesses be forced to choose between the Rays and Rowdies? Can area residents support baseball and soccer in a hometown city with population of 260,000?

Are the Rowdies St. Pete's future consolation prize?

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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