TAMPA — The 2013 season produced a number of great memories for Tampa Bay Rowdies fans, from the Rowdies' defeat of three-time U.S. Open Cup champion Seattle Sounders FC to the resumption of a longtime rivalry with the New York Cosmos after a 28-year hiatus in front of a record home crowd. The Rowdies, though, fell short of their main objectives: winning the NASL Soccer Bowl and defending the league title they captured a year earlier. With the Rowdies heading into an important offseason, we sat down with Rowdies owner and general manager Andrew Nestor to get his thoughts on next season, the expansion of the NASL and the Rowdies' future in St. Petersburg, among other topics.
The NASL has made a number of expansion moves with Indy, Ottawa and Virginia all slated to begin play next season, and Jacksonville and Oklahoma City joining in 2015. Do you like the direction the league is headed?
"I think the expansion markets and the owners that are coming into the league are going to be really strong, and geographically they start to really fill in the gaps in this country where we need to be. Going forward, we really need to focus on West Coast expansion, but we can't ever force expansion. You have to find the right situation, the right timing with the right owners. But I think looking forward, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, those types of markets are going to be really important for us."
With Jacksonville, having another team in Florida and another team you guys can build a natural rivalry with, is that something that excites you?
"(Sunshine Soccer Group CEO and Jacksonville team owner) Mark Frisch is going to be a great owner. He's extremely committed and has big plans for what they can accomplish in Jacksonville and that's only going to help us, to have that local rivalry and have another club nearby that's strong."
Do you think that the Rowdies are a good fit for the NASL?
"The scale of the league right now and where we're looking to take it fits our plans very well, and now having some of the legacy brands like the Strikers and the Cosmos with us and then looking at the new expansion markets, which are really good markets, I think it fits really well for St. Pete, the Tampa Bay region and the Rowdies."
The new markets, especially Indianapolis, seem to have a lot of potential.
"If you look around the league profile, it's kind of like those, they're major league level markets but they're not oversaturated. So there's the ability to really come in with a soccer team and make your mark and get a facility that you need. And I think it's showing already. We've all seen the success in San Antonio in the stands and with corporate support and you look at an Indianapolis who's over 7,000 season tickets sold without ever kicking a ball yet. It's really impressive. It shows the importance of why we restructured the league and why we rebranded it NASL and brought in the league personnel that we did because it really created a structure where clubs can launch and do very well and have sustainable growth. "
What did you think of the new competition format with the NASL, splitting the schedule into a spring and fall season and eliminating the playoffs, save for a one-game championship?
"I like the break in the summer. I think that's important for the Southeast teams. And I'm okay with no playoffs. The spring and fall season, for me, is a tough one. …I personally would probably prefer it be single table and not have the points reset during the break, so kind of like you see in a lot of other countries, like in the U.K. They have their break, but it's really just one long season. …There were reasons for it, the main reason being there's so few teams right now, it creates more competition and makes every game more important as opposed to just playing the same team four times in one year and under one season. I think we'll reevaluate it for 2015 because the profile will look a lot different when you have more teams."
The team had a solid season, finishing with 38 points and second behind Carolina when adding up the points from both seasons. Will the roster remain largely intact?
"There's definitely going to be retooling. We are proud of the season we had. Like I said, there are reasons for the split season this past season and next year and that's what we all agreed to so that's the format. You've just got to go out there and you've got to win it. In a normal format, we might have been second place, might have even been first, but I think mentally after we lost that Cosmos game, it kind of went downhill. …We have a good core group of players that I think will carry forward into next season but certainly we had some holes in our defense. We've got some players that are veteran players that are getting up there in age. We started to see a lot of injuries this season. So we've got some tough decisions to make for sure."
Do you anticipate signing a lot of new players?
"There's a number of free agents out there that we're taking a look at. I think we'll definitely be making a few signings of new impact players and as well probably having more of an expanded roster next season so just carrying more players."
Coach Ricky Hill's contract expires at the end of the year. Do you think Hill will still be the Rowdies coach next season?
"I do, I feel good about it. We've been speaking with him for months about this, and I think just once you're into the season, it's tough to be negotiating something like that. So we kind of put the brakes on during the year, during the fall season just to focus on the task at hand. But we spoke (Nov. 15). I believe he wants to be here. We want him here, so I feel confident we'll finalize something really soon. …(Every player) talks so highly of Ricky, about how he's made them all better players. I think that's pretty rare to have an entire locker room of guys that love their coach that much."
The Urban Land Institute advisory panel was recently commissioned to study St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront and suggested that Al Lang Stadium be redeveloped as a multi-use field. What is the Tampa Bay Rowdies' future in Al Lang and St. Petersburg?
"We definitely see a future in downtown St. Pete. The market, I think, is good for us from a scalability standpoint and then culturally as well. St. Pete is a hub for arts and entertainment and has great night life and you see all the museums around it and the diversity that you have in that area I think fits really well for the Rowdies brand and for the sport of soccer. …There's a lot of support in the community to have the Rowdies there long term."
What is the perfect scenario for the team in regards to Al Lang?
"The current configuration is obviously very difficult for soccer. And it's because it's a baseball stadium. It makes it difficult, but I do think there's a great opportunity for the community to turn that into a multi-purpose venue with the Rowdies as the anchor. But then the great thing about soccer is it's a giant rectangle, right? So you can do so much more in a multi-purpose venue with soccer as its anchor, community events, other sports fit well into that."
Is it important that the redesign of Al Lang be multi-use and not soccer-specific?
"We would want other events there. I think if you look at any successful arenas or stadiums around the country, they're not just doing one thing. I think the (Tampa Bay Times) Forum is a great example where it's one of the best concert venues in this country. And people always say soccer-specific, but other soccer stadiums around this country are doing a lot more than just soccer. And I do think that's important."
If the city decides that the stadium will remain with no changes or renovations, do you start to look at other stadiums or discuss building your own soccer-specific stadium?
"The current configuration for us is very difficult, so we would need to look at other options. But we're really committed to downtown St. Pete."
You're going into the fifth season. What is the general health of the franchise, and do you like the direction it's headed?
"I'm happy where we're at right now, always striving to improve. But when I look back at the last four years and what we've had to accomplish to get to where we are today, we've had to make a lot of hard decisions and it's been a ton of work but we accomplished basically building a new league, rebranding that, bringing in really good owners around the table in other markets. Locally, we were able to finally establish all the rights to the Rowdies marks. I think we've built a really good core fan base and group of sponsors as well to support the team. And on the field, we've been able to win. We have a championship, we had a good run in the U.S. Open Cup and we've shown fans that we're going to consistently challenge every year for the championship. So we've really put all the pieces of the foundation in place and now the next step is commercial growth and stadium development."