ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster sees the stands of Al Lang Field packed to the top row, the historic field rejuvenated with fans flocking to downtown from all parts of the bay area — by car and boat — to see a second-year professional soccer franchise..
FC Tampa Bay announced Wednesday that it has agreed to call Al Lang home the next two seasons. For a five-month span, the former baseball spring training home will take on a different look, with a soccer field sideline running along the stadium's first-base line and the infield dirt covered with natural grass.
The team will be Al Lang's primary tenant when the North American Soccer League regular season starts in April, so there will be no more balls scooting across infield dirt, as was the case last year at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
"I think both the players and the fans are going to be excited because it's going to be a great atmosphere," Rowdies owner and team president Andrew Nestor said. "And certainly having a proper field with no infield makes a huge difference competitively and for the overall atmosphere.
"The field is gorgeous, the setting is incredible. I was more surprised when I took a walk out the door to see how close the restaurants and bars and everything are. I think that's very key to our fans to have a full game-day experience."
Playing at Steinbrenner put the team at the mercy of the Yankees' Florida State League schedule and events at Raymond James Stadium, with which it shared parking lots. The move will allow the team to schedule 11 of its 14 home games on Saturday or Sunday, up from nine games out of 15 home dates last year.
Nestor said it will also allow the team to schedule more games before the summer's hottest months; eight of the team's 15 home games were in July and August last season.
The team also considered playing at USF and the University of Tampa, but holding primary tenant status was key in choosing Al Lang.
Nestor said the move will enhance the fan experience with closer, elevated field sight lines, as well as parking and concession prices cheaper than at Steinbrenner. Foster said he doesn't see the team having difficulty drawing fans, as the higher-profile Rays do.
"If you go along our waterfront and see our new clubs and nightlife establishment, half the crowd is from Tampa now," Foster said. "The Tampa connoisseur of fine dining, drink and a good soccer game, they're already coming. Combine the two on a weekend, and this place will be packed. It is a whole experience.
"Heck, people from Apollo Beach, it will be easier to get in their boat and they can literally park right here and catch a soccer game. …This is not a Dale Mabry experience."
The city hopes the move will revive the historic ballpark, which has lacked a significant primary tenant since the Rays moved their spring training home to Port Charlotte nearly three seasons ago.
"I feel 100 percent confident that it's going to work," said Steve Nadel, director of the St. Pete Baseball Commission. "…This downtown area is just so primed for more of an explosion. I think it's a well-kept secret."
The franchise still has long-term goals to build a soccer-specific stadium in a downtown location, Nestor said.
"Where that downtown location is I think will come out in the next few years," Nestor said.
Views of the field will be closer than at Steinbrenner, where the playing field was mostly in the outfield, and one goal will be situated in front of the third-base dugout. Al Lang will seat about 7,000, including 1,100 reserved seats. And there will be berm seating along the rightfield line where the baseball field's existing bullpens are. Nadel said eventually having an artificial turf field will be discussed.
The team's first home game is April 9 against the Montreal Impact.