ST. PETERSBURG — With a pair of flat-screen televisions proclaiming "a new era" flanking him at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist Bill Edwards announced Thursday that he had purchased a controlling interest in the Tampa Bay Rowdies and would immediately become principal owner of the North American Soccer League franchise.
Seated next to former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, NASL commissioner Bill Peterson and Rowdies minority owners and board members David Laxer and Andrew Nestor, Edwards said he is committed to building the best team and creating the best fan experience in American soccer.
"We intend to continue to build this team in St. Petersburg and increase the visibility of it and make it a winner, keep it a winner," said Edwards, the millionaire owner of Mortgage Investors Corp. who was named to the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame this year. "We won (a championship) in 2012; there's no reason we can't win next year."
Edwards said the deal for his takeover had been in the works for three months, and he had already increased the team's budget for the 2014 season.
"I think the team has been on a very tight budget, which you have to be when you're in business," Edwards said. "But sometimes it takes money to make money, and that's what we need right now. What the team needed was a partner that could come in with some money and put the things together that need to be put together to elevate the team to the next level."
Laxer, part of the original ownership group along with Nestor and Hinds Howard that purchased the rights to the team in 2008 and brought professional soccer back to Tampa Bay, said he is thrilled to have Edwards take over as majority owner. Laxer and Nestor will remain minority owners and board members. Howard will no longer be involved.
"I don't think there's anyone that's more passionate about anything he does, more passionate about St. Petersburg. …What he's doing for the city is amazing," said Laxer, owner of Bern's Steak House in Tampa. "His passion that will carry through to the franchise I think is going to put our team over the top. … I think we're going to win multiple championships with him."
Nestor will continue as Rowdies president and general manager.
"Day to day, I'm still overseeing the daily operations, but at the end of the day, Bill is going to call the shots," Nestor said.
In an effort to improve the fan experience at Al Lang Stadium, the club's home venue, Edwards said he will help fund the addition of more than 1,100 seats along the south sideline. A 212-seat Midfielder's Club will feature seats 10 feet from the field that wrap around newly integrated players' benches, and an additional 996 Midfield Reserved seats will offer premium seating at the converted baseball stadium. The new seats are removable and include seat backs, more leg room and a private entrance and restrooms.
"They'll be as nice as they can be for temporary seats," Nestor said. "But we're not actually tearing up the grass and pouring concrete."
Additionally, the team announced that coach Ricky Hill has been re-signed. Hill, 54, a native of London and a former standout player for Luton Town FC, recently completed his third season as the Tampa Bay's manager. He has an overall record of 39 wins, 28 losses and 26 ties.
The Rowdies won the 2012 NASL Championship, when Hill was named the league's coach of the year.
"I love it in St. Petersburg and Tampa," Hill said. "I've had a great time here in my three years I've been back. … I'm in no hurry to go anywhere from here."
Details of Hill's contract were not available.