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Romano: It ain't my money, but MLS costs sound awfully high

Kudos to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and owner Bill Edwards.

So far, they've been spot-on in their quest to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to the area. They've been up front about their intentions. They haven't tried to circumvent St. Pete's waterfront regulations. They intend on paying for Al Lang Stadium renovations themselves. They've even agreed to foot the bill for the May referendum on a potential 25-year lease with the city.

Near as I can tell, their plan has been flawless.

Except, maybe, for the premise.

I'm not trying to be a Rowdie pooper, but are we really sure this can work? The idea of Tampa Bay supporting an MLS team, I mean.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the idea of a big league soccer team in downtown St. Pete. And I certainly applaud Edwards' proposal to find private funding for everything. But just because the rollout has been graceful doesn't mean it's logical.

Before getting too caught up in the excitement of a team owner willing to spend a bunch of money, there are a few red flags that might be worth considering.

For instance, we're kind of a weak sports market.

That's not an insult, it's an observation. And one that's pretty well backed up by data. It's less an indictment of fan passion, and more a reflection of market demographics.

The same economic problems that have bedeviled the Rays — a dearth of corporations and a relatively low median income for workers — would presumably have an impact on soccer.

In the last couple of years both Forbes and the American City Business Journals identified Tampa Bay as one of the most overextended sports markets in the country. Essentially, they both suggest we might have more franchises than we can financially handle.

That doesn't mean we couldn't support the MLS, but it's worth thinking about.

Maybe you would argue that the MLS doesn't pay gazillions to players, and so its economic structure lines up better with Tampa Bay than Major League Baseball.

That's true, but with a couple of caveats. The Rays get a major infusion of cash from both national and local TV contracts that offsets their poor attendance. Soccer doesn't yet have that kind of windfall from TV, and that isn't likely to change in the near future.

Plus, and this has been overlooked to a large degree, the MLS is looking to cash in on this latest go-around of expansion teams.

Expansion fees for the two franchises expected to be announced in 2017 — and Tampa Bay's best chance is probably the following wave a year or two down the road — are $150 million each.

Compare that to Atlanta, which was awarded an expansion franchise less than three years ago for $70 million. That's a gigantic leap in price in a very short time period. Heck, the price has gone up 1,500 percent since Toronto got its franchise in 2005 for $10 million.

The point is, if Edwards' ownership group has to shell out that kind of cash — not to mention the money spent renovating Al Lang — I'll offer you pretty good odds that ticket prices and sponsorships will see a similar leap into the stratosphere. And that will lead to the same sort of problems the Rays have.

There's no question Edwards is a smarter businessman than I am. And he obviously thinks the numbers will work in the long run. I certainly hope he's right.

But I do have my doubts.

Romano: It ain't my money, but MLS costs sound awfully high 03/07/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 7, 2017 10:27am]
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