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Tampa Bay Rays set to announce purchase of Rowdies soccer team

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What will this mean for stadiums on both sides of the bay?

The Tampa Bay Rays have reportedly bought the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a soccer team in the second-tier United Soccer League. An official announcement will come tomorrow at 10:30 am.

The Rowdies play their games at Al Lang Stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront, a site that had once been under discussion as a potential site for the Rays new stadium. Al Lang Stadium had previously been a baseball field that served as the spring training home for the Rays.

Since 2013 the Rowdies have been owned by Bill Edwards, a St. Petersburg businessman whose enterprises cross the worlds of entertainment and real estate. He owns and has overseen the redevelopment of what is now Sundial (an open air mall in the heart of St. Pete); he manages the Mahaffey Theater, and owns a recording company.

He also owned a mortgage firm, Mortgage Investors Corp, that as of a year ago was being sued for fraud after whistle blowers accused the company of predatory practices, most notably defrauding military veterans with high fees and predatory terms. As far as we can tell, that suit has not been resolved.

The Rowdies have unsuccessfully applied to join the higher level Major League Soccer. Earlier this year Edwards claimed that he was seeking investors to join an ownership group in hopes that deeper pockets would make the Rowdies more likely to get “promoted” in the future. Other reports suggested that MLS’s concerns included the mortgage fraud lawsuit hanging over Edwards’ head.

While Edwards said that he was looking for partners and had no intention of selling the team, reports from Noah Pransky, who broke the story, suggest that the Rays will in fact become the new Rowdy owners. It’s not clear whether Edwards will continue in any role.

This announcement has unleashed a great deal of speculation about stadiums on both sides of the Bay. Are the Rays buying the Rowdies because they want to run a soccer team, or because they want to control some St. Pete real estate?

Our first take is that this is a positive sign for those who live and die with the Rays hope to have the team stick around the Bay area. We’ve heard some fans worry that Stuart Sternberg and his ownership group don’t have deep roots in this region and others doubt the team’s sincerity as they pursue a new stadium in Tampa. The purchase the Rowdies reinforces the idea that these folks don’t have a foot out the door (Montreal already has a soccer team, we checked).

There could certainly be some economies of scale in owning two sports teams in the same market. While there may be little overlap in onfield personnel, off field matters like concessions, marketing, accounting and even sports medicine could have synergies. Owning two teams may allow the Rays to explore some more robust broadcasting rights options and cross-promotions. The Rays may also believe that the region has a good chance to be chosen for the next round of MLS expansion with a strong ownership group; if that were to happen their investment becomes that much more valuable.

But what, if anything, this means to the ongoing stadium conversations on both sides of the bay is unclear.

We’ve seen some tweets suggesting that the earlier Al Lang Field “sail stadium” could be back in play now, especially as there are no announced plans to move ahead with a public-private financing package in Hillsborough. This would seem to be an unlikely outcome. They Rays had control of the Al Lang site. The sail stadium was conceived of because the Rays were contractually obligated to stay in St. Petersburg, not because Al Lang Field and its surrounding are ideal for major league baseball.

Other possibilities could include

  • Moving the Rowdies to Ybor and developing a stadium that would serve both teams. While this seems possible (and could help overcome a few, but not many, funding barriers), single use stadiums seem to be very much the norm these days.
  • Planning for a new and larger new soccer stadium at the former Tropicana Field site. If the Rowdies were to move up a league they would need to have plans in the works for a larger stadium. This could fit in to the Trop redevelopment plans.
  • Moving Rays spring training back to St. Petersburg at Al Lang Field (either sharing facilities with the Rowdies or with the Rowdies relocated). We are not sure how long the Rays agreement with Charlotte County binds them to use the Charlotte Sports Park (the agreement was first signed in 2006), but at some point they could be looking for a new spring training home. They had moved spring training to Port Charlotte in hopes of growing the fan base in Southwest Florida; they could presumably decide that this was not worth the effort and bring Spring Training back to the Tampa Bay region.

Thanks as always to Dominik Vega for the mash-up logo above.