Thursday, April 19, 2018

Jones: MLS Rowdies sounds good, but not sold on it happening

Could St. Petersburg really support a Major League Soccer team?

You want to say yes. You want to say it will work. You want to think we're a big market.

You want to think we're cool enough, hip enough.

The reality of it, though?

It just feels hard to imagine that 18,000 people are going to show up once a week in the heat of summer to watch MLS.

This has nothing to do with the people in charge of this effort. Owner Bill Edwards and former St. Pete mayor Rick Baker are sharp guys. If anyone can pull this off, they can.

This has nothing to do with stadium location. The Al Lang site would be perfect for a soccer-only stadium with a gorgeous view and plenty of neighbors serving food and drink.

This has nothing to do with the Rowdies brand, which has deep ties to Tampa Bay.

Jones: Lots to like here, but will MLS agree

But you have to wonder if there are enough great soccer fans to support a soccer league that isn't that great.

Let's face it, and this isn't meant to insult anyone, but the MLS is a minor league. It's the best league we have in this country and there are very talented players in this league. To watch better soccer you need a plane or a boat and an oversized suitcase.

Or a television.

That's part of the problem.

The MLS is not the English Premier League. It's not the German Bundesliga. It's not the Spanish La Liga.

The best players in the world — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar — would never play in the MLS unless they were too old to play elsewhere or someone gave them part-ownership of an MLS team. (Hey, something to think about, Bill and Rick.)

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So, that's what it comes down to. Is this product enticing enough to follow?

We're Americans. We're spoiled. We like the best. We have the best football league in world here. We have the best baseball league. The best basketball and hockey leagues. The NFL, NHL and MLB all have teams in our area. The NBA is just a couple of hours away. Again, these leagues are the very best.

But we have like the sixth-best soccer league.

Will people go to games? Will they buy jerseys? Will they watch on television when the team is playing out of town?

When wondering if Tampa Bay can add another team to the mix, however, it's less about soccer competing with three other professional teams in town, although it does seem that the MLS does very well in cities with fewer sports teams, such as Columbus, Portland, Seattle and, now, Orlando.

No, the problem MLS has is more about competing with other soccer leagues.

Ask any diehard soccer fan to tell you which league they follow and MLS is not their first choice. Soccer fans spend their weekend mornings getting up to watch soccer from England or Germany. This isn't 20 years ago when soccer fans had to find some tiny Irish pub that had a satellite dish to show one game a week. Now, fans can watch games from their living room couch.

NBC covers the English Premier League like it covers the NFL. Fox covers the German league like the NFL. Univision is all over the La Liga. You can follow those leagues as closely as those who live in Europe.

Now, if you put an MLS team in their backyard would a soccer fan who normally follows Arsenal or Man U or Barcelona suddenly become an MLS fan? A Rowdies fan? Can you watch two leagues at once?

It does work in other American cities, and that's what many around here are banking on.

There are soccer fans here, no doubt. About 5,000 people a week show up to Al Lang to watch a league that isn't even as good as the MLS. That's encouraging.

But St. Pete has an uphill battle. Would the MLS put three teams in Florida? Is St. Pete a better pick than tough competition from possible expansion cities such as San Diego, Indianapolis and Sacramento — the kind of mid-major cities that work so well in the MLS?

It would be great if MLS came to St. Pete. It would give us another team to follow, right along with the Bucs, Rays and Lightning.

It would be awesome that downtown St. Pete would turn into a soccer party on a Saturday night with yellow-and-green-clad fans with painted faces, singing Ole, Ole, Ole while parading down Central Avenue.

Count me in.

I'm just not sure the MLS will count St. Pete in.

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Published: 04/18/18