Friday, September 21, 2018
Sports

Bill Edwards, Rowdies contingent make in-person MLS pitch

With a cleverly concocted phrase and a large show of support, Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards went to work in New York City.

Monday afternoon, Edwards turned in the required formal paperwork stating that his Rowdies have applied to become a member of Major League Soccer. In three months, if not sooner, MLS will announce its two expansion franchises.

The Rowdies could have just mailed in a few pages, as long as it was done before the Tuesday deadline for cities to submit applications.

Then again, what Edwards brought would have required some serious postage. A bulky packet filled with more than 200 letters of support from local politicians, and an entourage of about 30 co-workers and friends, found their way into the MLS headquarters.

And though there was no expectation of meeting with league officials, the crew sat down with league deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, who took in a video presentation touting the bid.

"We had a great time," Edwards said. "We met for about an hour, had a lot of fun. (Abbott) was very hospitable and when it was over, he even applauded."

The Rowdies have competition in the form of 10 other cities. Two more expansion towns will be added in the future but Edwards wants to get in on the first go.

Inside a package labeled "We Brought Our Pitch To You" was a video showing renderings of Edwards' proposed expansion of Al Lang into an 18,000-seat facility, were it to gain MLS designation. The Rowdies unveiled the plans last month along with the campaign #MLS2StPete.

"We had about a month to put this together and I'm very proud of my people to come up with such a presentation," he said. "I think they appreciated the hard work we put into it."

Edwards stressed several factors that seem to favor the Rowdies. Tampa Bay is the largest media market (11th) without an MLS franchise (the Rowdies' new league, the USL, recently gained second-division status). The in-existence stadium helps, as will the promise to use only his money to fund the improvements, expected to run in the $80 million range.

Along with key Rowdies staff, the meeting featured members of the Rowdies' fan group Ralph's Mob and honorary player Cole Eicher, a 14-year cancer survivor.

"The MLS staff were wide-eyed about the presence of the contingent for the Rowdies going through their main office," said Stephen Cundiff, president of Ralph's Mob.

Now for the next part of the equation: getting a bunch of folks through the turnstiles when the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational comes to Al Lang on Feb. 18 and 25. The Rowdies will play against MLS' Philadelphia and Montreal. Three other MLS clubs will participate, culminating with a triple-header on the 25th.

Sellouts would largely impress the league.

"It is a big event," Edwards said. "One thing's for sure, MLS teams like coming here for their spring training. We need the fans to come out and show their support. Let's face it; we want to be in that league."

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Published: 09/21/18