Sunday, June 17, 2018

Will MLS take another chance on Tampa Bay? (w/video)

Leaving the January cold of New York for a flight to Tampa is usually a welcome getaway. But in 2002, it was not a trip Mark Abbott wanted to make.

As Major League Soccer's president and assistant commissioner, Abbott went to the Tampa Bay Mutiny's cramped offices at Raymond James Stadium to tell the team it no longer existed. Poor attendance, lack of local ownership and financial losses in the millions forced the league to contract the team.

Tampa Bay has the distinction of being the only one of the original 10 MLS teams in 1996 to get the axe. Miami also was contracted, but it joined the league in 1998.

"That was not a good trip," Abbott said. "But I've always said this, it was harder on the people it impacted than it was on me."

Now, MLS again is considering Tampa Bay. St. Petersburg is one of 12 cities vying for four teams in MLS' next wave of expansion. Two cities are expected to be named by the fall.

Has the area soccer climate changed that much in 15 years?

"Things are very different now, both in that region and in the league," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.

Different league, different city

MLS is the highest level of professional soccer in the United States. It has ballooned to 22 teams since 1996 with plans to be at 26 teams by 2020 and 28 sometime after that. Tampa Bay is competing with Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego and St. Louis.

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The expansion fee for the two new teams is $150 million. It cost $7.5 million when Chicago and Miami joined in 1998.

"This is not your father's MLS," said Dan Courtemanche, the league's executive vice president for communications. "This is MLS 3.0."

The Tampa Bay soccer scene is also different. Unlike the mid 1990s, there is already an established professional team. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, who originally started in 1975, re-started in Tampa in 2010 and moved to St. Petersburg the following year. They currently play in the United Soccer League.

"Not having to build (the team) from the ground up is a big plus," Garber said. "The Rowdies have a great brand. They've established a strong tradition already."

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If Tuesday's voter referendum passes, Rowdies owner Bill Edwards will be able to negotiate a deal with the city for a 25-year lease at waterfront Al Lang Stadium should St. Petersburg be awarded an MLS team. Edwards said he will not only plop down the expansion fee but he is committed to an $80 million renovation to expand the stadium from 7,227 to 18,000 seats.

Edwards and former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, now president of the Edwards Group, traveled to MLS' New York City offices in January to hand deliver their expansion application.

"I'm very confident it can make it after we get the team," Baker said. "I feel very good about our position."

Baker emphasized the strong ownership, a solid stadium plan, community support and a large media market as reasons for St. Petersburg to land a team. According to Nielsen ratings, the Tampa/St. Petersburg market, which includes Bradenton-Sarasota, reaches 1,859,820 homes. That makes it 11th nationally just behind Houston and just ahead of Phoenix. MLS is already in the top 10 markets, which makes Tampa Bay the largest television market without a team.

As for MLS games broadcast on ESPN, Tampa Bay ranks 23rd out of 56 major markets with a 0.2 rating. Orlando is the top market with a 0.6 rating.

"Tampa-St. Pete is the largest media market that we're not in," Garber said. "It has great potential. But we would have to organize how to make it work with the Orlando owners."

Sharing the wealth

Orlando is crazy about its soccer team, and St. Petersburg wants the same thing for the Rowdies.

Orlando City began MLS play in 2015, also jumping from the USL. This season it moved into a 25,000-seat soccer specific stadium downtown and near the Orlando Magic basketball arena. Its games sell out and there are 18,000 season-ticket holders.

The Magic averaged 17,753 fans in its recently completed season.

In 2016, its last season in the Citrus Bowl, Orlando averaged 31,324 fans, second in the league behind MLS Cup champ Seattle.

If Orlando can support two professional teams within miles of each other, then why can't St. Petersburg? Al Lang is 1.1 miles from Tropicana Field, home of Major League Baseball's Rays.

"The success Orlando has had is very encouraging to us," said Baker, adding: "We're a large region. We feel there is a fan base in the bay area to support everybody."

Orlando's success could work to St. Petersburg's advantage. Abbott believes it proves there is a demand for professional soccer in the area.

"We recognize while there is some overlap, they are distinct markets," he said. "They are a different television market, they have their own (professional) sports teams. If anything, I think the success of Orlando demonstrates where the league is today vs. where we were in 2001."

And Garber made it sound as if possibly having three teams in Florida, including two within two hours of each other, is not a big concern. MLS has guaranteed Miami a team, which is backed by David Beckham, if it can find a stadium site.

"Rivalries are great," Garber said. "It's working in New York with Red Bulls and New York City FC, and we're excited about LA with the Galaxy and LAFC, which opens play next season. That type of passion has been great for the league."

Who gets in?

It will not be a surprise if Tampa Bay isn't selected in the first wave of expansion. As Garber mentioned, the league would have to work with Orlando ownership before giving Tampa Bay a team and cutting into Orlando's television market.

Also, just two years ago MLS did not have a team south of Washington D.C. Now it has both Atlanta and Orlando and possibly Miami.

If the MLS board feels the South is well-represented, then it may look at Phoenix, for example, to raise the Southwest region. Or San Diego or Sacramento in soccer-friendly California.

Then there is Edwards. He is not a behind-the-scenes type of owner. After leaving the North American Soccer League last season, he is suing it for criminal conspiracy. He also sent a video to the league in July that highlighted officials' mistakes.

Will MLS owners want someone who may rock the boat?

"We have had very, very positive experiences with Bill,'' Abbott said. "We are supportive of his efforts down there.''

And if the efforts result in an MLS team, this time Abbott won't dread his flight to St. Petersburg to tell Edwards in person.

Times sports columnist Tom Jones and correspondent Ryan Dawson contributed to this report.

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