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Romano: How complicated can building a soccer stadium be? Don't ask

Published Dec. 1, 2016

For now, talk of a renovated stadium for the Rowdies is mostly a rumor in Tampa Bay.

The question is whether it will soon become a referendum in St. Petersburg.

Weeks after the minor-league franchise confirmed it was moving to the United Soccer League next season, the Rowdies have promised a "historic" announcement next week.

One popular assumption is the team will unveil plans to renovate and expand Al Lang Stadium, which is something owner Bill Edwards has been discussing — and showing artists' renderings of — for months.

But a revamped stadium is only one of several interrelated moves.

And that's where you come in.

The Rowdies can't reasonably justify spending piles of money on a stadium without a couple of assurances:

1. A long-term lease at Al Lang.

2. A future in the more prestigious Major League Soccer.

The lease can happen only with the approval of St. Petersburg voters via a referendum. While the renovation will not expand the footprint of the site (the way a proposed Rays stadium would have in 2008), the city still requires voter approval on long-term, waterfront deals.

And moving up to MLS will almost certainly require Edwards paying a territorial fee to the Orlando City SC team, which owns the MLS rights for this market. That kind of investment means Edwards will probably want a greater demonstration of fan support from the Tampa Bay business community.

So is it reasonable to expect all of these pieces to come together?

Yes, but the details are going to matter.

When Edwards was first talking about a stadium expansion earlier this year, he was lobbying Pinellas County commissioners to devote funds from resort tax revenues. A good chunk of the resort tax money is being held aside for a potential Rays stadium, and Dunedin will probably be looking for funds to upgrade the Blue Jays' spring training stadium, but it's possible the Rowdies could get a slice of that pie.

It's also possible that Edwards will announce the renovation will be done mostly with private money, which would certainly increase the chances of a referendum passing.

That referendum would also be significantly more popular if voters knew the Rowdies were on their way to upgrading to MLS.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he has not had recent conversations with Edwards about stadium renovations, but encourages trying for the larger league.

"Soccer is a great sport, and we love having the Rowdies here," Kriseman said. "If they have an opportunity to be an MLS franchise, I would think residents would embrace that idea."

That's what makes the issue complicated:

None of the components seem to work on their own.

Getting to MLS will be an expensive proposition for Edwards, which means he's going to need more fans. Renovating the stadium could help with fans, but that's going to take at least a 20-year lease, which is going to require the referendum.

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Simple, right?

All you have to do is trust Edwards to bring MLS to town, Edwards has to trust you to buy more tickets and eventually pass the referendum, and MLS has to trust that it's a good idea to add another franchise 100 miles away from Orlando.

What could possibly go wrong?

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