Bill Edwards: Rowdies will stay in St. Petersburg ‘for at least five years’ under deal with Rays

In a Tuesday morning press conference, Rays president Matt Silverman and Rowdies owner Bill Edwards announced the sale of the team. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.
Bill Edwards, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Jake Edwards, president of the (USL) United Soccer League, and Matt Silverman pose together following today's news conference. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times ]
Bill Edwards, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Jake Edwards, president of the (USL) United Soccer League, and Matt Silverman pose together following today's news conference. [DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 2, 2018|Updated Oct. 2, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay's baseball team will soon be the proud owner of Tampa Bay's soccer team. In a Tuesday morning press conference at the Mahaffey Theater, Bill Edwards announced the sale of the Rowdies to the Rays after five years of ownership.

"I'm announcing that I am selling the Tampa Bay Rowdies to the Tampa Bay Rays,'' Edwards said. "Why? I wanted to keep it local. I wanted to keep it in town. I've heard a lot of stories about this, but this is a great situation for the city of St. Petersburg. I've done the things I'm supposed to do. Mission accomplished, and I'm out.''

The deal won't become official until Oct. 11, at the earliest. That is the next time the St. Petersburg City Council could approve the deal, a necessary step since the sale includes reauthorization of the Rowdies' lease to play at Al Lang Stadium.

While terms of the deal were not disclosed, Edwards said that the current agreement stipulates that only the Rowdies can play at Al Lang for the duration of the current contract, which runs through Nov. 30, 2020. He also said his agreement with the Rays has a clause that the Rowdies play at Al Lang for at least the next five years.

"I've heard a lot of conspiracies,'' Edwards said. "There's nothing going on. Our agreement is to keep the Rowdies in town for at least five years.''

Rays team president Matt Silverman said the five-year commitment was not an issue and reiterated the Rowdies deal is "unrelated" to plans to build a new baseball stadium in Ybor City they hope to open in 2023.

"It was not a contentious point at all,'' he told the Tampa Bay Times after the event. "In fact, we were in complete agreement that for the foreseeable future the Rowdies should be playing at Al Lang, and we hope that their run at Al Lang continues beyond that.''

With the lease expiring in two years, the Rays will have to work out a new deal with the city to fulfill the five-year promise.

Silverman and St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said there was no talk of playing baseball there again or re-opening the previously failed idea of building a baseball stadium on that site, which could require public approval.

"Al Lang is a soccer venue now, and it's a great one, and Bill has invested a lot of money into making it a soccer venue,'' Silverman said. "We think it should continue that way for the foreseeable future.''

Edwards, 73, will no longer own the Rowdies, but his company, Big 3 Entertainment, will continue to produce concerts at Al Lang. He will also remain manager of the Mahaffey Theater and will continue to own and operate the downtown Sundial shopping district.

The teams will maintain separate front offices, but the deal will provide the opportunity to combine some operations, some mundanely administrative, such as payroll and HR; some exploratory, such as athletic training, recovery and injury prevention; and some from the business side, such as selling sponsorship packages for both teams and possibly ticket deals. And with input on the schedule for both teams, they could not only limit conflicts but create an event such as a doubleheader day.

"I do think there will be many different opportunities for the organizations to learn from each other,'' Silverman said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to expand both fan bases by bringing them together.''

For now, Rays and Rowdies fans will continue to share St. Petersburg. Kriseman, decked out in a Rays cap and a Rowdies scarf, said he was encouraged by the merger.

"To me, the message it sends is that the Rays recognize what's happening in downtown St. Pete and have made an investment in a franchise that was already drawing well and continues to draw well (average attendance, 5,754) and is bringing a lot of energy and excitement to the community,'' he said.

Currently, the Rowdies play in the United Soccer League. They are 11-13-7 and four points out of playoff contention with three matches left in the season. They play at Atlanta tonight and must win out to even have a chance at the playoffs.

Edwards previously explored the possibility of moving the Rowdies to Major League Soccer, the highest-level professional soccer league in the United States. MLS did not select Tampa/St. Petersburg in its latest round of expansion.

"There is a rich history of professional soccer and the Rowdies in Tampa–St. Petersburg," MLS spokesperson Dan Courtemanche said in a statement, "and we congratulate both Bill Edwards and the Tampa Bay Rays on building on that history through this sale."

Silverman said a jump to MLS is not a top priority.

"It's not something that we categorically rule out, but it's not a part of our plans,'' he said. "We're very happy with the Rowdies' standing in the United Soccer League. We think it's a great fit for the team and the venue we play in. We made this decision that we are going to be in the USL for a long time.''

Staff Writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.