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Rowdies' soccer success in St. Pete leads to legal tussle

ST. PETERSBURG — Steve Nadel remembers clearly when he first thought of luring the Tampa Bay Rowdies away from George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

The director of the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission was sick in bed when the idea of enticing the struggling soccer franchise to play at Al Lang Field occurred to him, he told the St. Petersburg City Council last month.

Nadel might now regret that flash of inspiration.

Earlier this month Bill Edwards, the St. Petersburg magnate who owns the Rowdies, sued Nadel's nonprofit organization, citing poor maintenance and implying that the commission might be shortchanging the team on ticket sales.

The Rowdies' growing popularity has transformed the aging stadium into an increasingly vibrant venue since the team arrived in 2011. Ironically, that very energy has contributed to the current legal impasse.

Edwards charges that the baseball commission has done a poor job of maintaining the stadium and honoring the terms of its management contract. Others see the lawsuit as Edwards' attempt to wrest control of the stadium, an allegation that Edwards denies.

Former Mayor Bill Foster said the commission stepped up to manage Al Lang and Walter Fuller Sports Complex when few others were interested.

The city used to pay the Tampa Bay Rays $1 million a year to manage both facilities until the Rays moved spring training to Port Charlotte in 2009. The city now pays the baseball commission $200,000 a year.

"They were handed aging facilities and made the most out of it," Foster said. "The ownership of the Rowdies under my administration expressed how much they loved St. Pete, how they loved playing at Al Lang, how much they loved it being their home."

Neither Nadel nor his partner George Strus consented to interviews for this story.

However, at a recent council meeting, Nadel talked about the commission's origins and purpose.

The nonprofit commission was formed in 2010 when the group won the contract to manage the two sports facilities. According to tax filings, neither partner takes a salary from the commission.

Nadel told council members that he makes a middle-manager's salary from his for-profit business — Tampa Bay Spring Training — which brings about 40 to 50 high school baseball teams from cold-weather states to Walter Fuller and Al Lang each March. That business helps support the Baseball Commission, he said.

Nadel, who played baseball at Eckerd College in the early 1990s, told the council he "took great risk" in forming the nonprofit.

"Not glamorous, not lucrative, but doing something I love that I have a passion for," he said then.

Edwards' complaints about the commission initially surprised some city officials, who said they've generally been pleased with Nadel's performance.

"Before (Edwards) purchased them I never heard a single complaint," said council member Charlie Gerdes. "All I knew about how that was going was it was wonderful."

After Edwards produced a May 9 letter from North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson finding the condition of Al Lang "lacking," the city agreed to spend $250,000 to renovate the turf.

Gerdes and other council members said they thought that would solve the problem.

It didn't.

Edwards on Friday said the commission has refused to talk with him or provide information he wants, so that's why he filed suit on July 2.

"The contract said they would turn it into a soccer field. I assumed they would. I'm a businessman. I expect people to honor their contract. But that field has just been getting worse year after year," Edwards said.

Edwards pointed to the violence and arrests at the July 6 game against Orlando City Soccer Club as a result of poor stadium management, saying the commission refused to listen to pleas for more security.

"They did that to make us look bad and make it negative about the Rowdies," Edwards said.

The team's popularity should have been a win-win for everyone, he said. The Rowdies pay the commission a $1.25 fee on each ticket sold in addition to $7,800 per game.

"It's sad," Edwards said. "There are more and more fans. They're making more and more money."

Looming over the controversy is an ongoing waterfront master planning effort expected to determine Al Lang's future.

Gerdes favors a multiuse athletic facility downtown. He said he was surprised and disappointed about the lawsuit.

"I just take this as a strategic move on Mr. Edwards' part to try to advance his interest in controlling that property," Gerdes said.

It makes sense Edwards wants to control his team's stadium, said council member Steve Kornell. That's common across professional sports.

He would support allowing Edwards to take over when the current contract ends, he said, but does sympathize with the commission.

"I hate to see the St. Pete Baseball Commission treated badly. They're the ones that brought the Rowdies here in the first place."

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago. Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

Rowdies' soccer success in St. Pete leads to legal tussle 07/11/14 [Last modified: Sunday, July 13, 2014 12:19am]
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