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Owner puts Rowdies on the market

Weary after nearly a decade as owner of the area's oldest professional sports franchise, Cornelia Corbett announced Tuesday that the Tampa Bay Rowdies are for sale.

"As of today, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are for sale," said Corbett, who was part of an investor group that bought the soccer franchise in 1984. "Personally, it's been a wonderful, wonderful experience, but I'm tired. The Tampa Bay area deserves someone with new energy, new vision. There comes a time in one's tenure when you look back over what you've achieved and say it's time to move on."

Corbett wouldn't name a price for the Rowdies, but noted she and her husband, Dick, along with Tampa business people Stella Ferguson Thayer and Bob Blanchard paid $300,000 when they purchased the Rowdies from team founder George Strawbridge nine years ago. Corbett assumed sole ownership in 1986.

While she said she prefers to keep the team in the Tampa Bay area, Corbett said she is willing to entertain offers from investors anywhere. She said she has not received any direct contacts, but added, "I know of two people who have expressed an interest through third parties."

Corbett said she might disband the franchise if no prospective owners surface in the next three months.

"The club itself, once the season is completed, will cease operations if I have not sold it," she said. "The franchise, territory, name and logo would still be viable and owned by me. I will do everything in my power to see the Rowdies are maintained in the Tampa Bay area."

Now in their 19th season, the Rowdies have been here longer than the NFL's Buccaneers and are the oldest professional soccer franchise in the country. In the heyday of the North American Soccer League, they regularly drew crowds of more than 30,000 to Tampa Stadium.

Corbett poured her passion and her money into keeping the franchise afloat when the NASL folded in the mid-1980s, but the big crowds of the 1970s never returned. Tampa Bay has averaged 2,500 at its four games at Tampa Stadium this season, playing in the American Professional Soccer League.

While acknowledging losses of at least $100,000 a year since 1988, Corbett said financial considerations were not the impetus for Tuesday's decision.

"This is the hardest professional and personal decision I've ever made, but it is a decision I must make (because) I just feel it's time for me to move on," said Corbett, one of the few female owners of a professional sports team. "It is not a financial decision. I really feel soccer is about to enter what I call the third phase. The first was the NASL. We've completed the middle years, from '84 to now. And with the World Cup coming next year and a new national league coming afterward, we'll have the third phase. It's an exciting time for soccer. Soccer is finding its identity and moving on to being a well-respected sport in this country.

"I hope a new owner can take the Rowdies to this level. Maybe I've lost a spark. The groundwork is there and it's ready to take off."

Coach Ken Fogarty informed the players of Corbett's decision Tuesday. "I think this kind of news takes time to settle in and be absorbed," he said. "From an emotional viewpoint, it's difficult for everybody right now."

One-third through the 1993 APSL regular season, the Rowdies are 2-5 and in fifth place among seven teams. They host the Montreal Impact (1-5) at 8:05 p.m. Saturday.