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Tampa Bay Rays announce purchase of Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team

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They become the third major league team to invest in a second-division soccer club.

@TBTimes_Rays

At a press conference this morning, Rays President Matt Silverman announced the acquisition of the United Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies from local investor Bill Edwards. Also speaking in endorsement of the deal were Mayor Rick Kriseman and USL President Jake Edwards. Rays co-President Brian Auld was also in attendance.

The agreement as written would extend the Rowdies lease of Al Lang Stadium to keep the Rowdies in the city for five years from the purchase, and is pending approval from the St. Petersburg City Council, which does not meet until October 11th.

At the press conference, Bill Edwards was praised for his work bringing new life and energy to the Rowdies, renovating Al Lang Stadium, and contributing to the revitalization of downtown St. Petersburg, with Rowdies fans bringing life to area bars and restaurants before and after games.

Mayor Rick Kriseman spoke at the event alongside USL president, and said he was pleased to see that Edwards was selling to an ownership group that had local roots (even though the Rays are consider by some to be carpetbaggers, although the NYC-based ownership group have been here more than ten years).

The Rays were likewise complimentary of Edwards, in a prepared statement noting: “We are committed to continuing the upward trajectory that the Rowdies have been experiencing under Bill’s visionary leadership.”

Silverman also said in his prepared statement that, “Our future has never been brighter, and our commitment to the Tampa Bay area has never been stronger.”

For those hypothesizing that Rays acquisition of the Rowdies was intended to drive competition with Tampa as financing for an Ybor stadium is debated, the main takeaway here would be the agreement to keep the Rowdies at Al Lang for five years (specific dates not yet clear), and much interest expressed in using the site for more activities such as concerts.

All participants certainly sounded the right notes of wanting to continue to manage the Rowdies as a St. Pete asset, and insisting that this is completely unrelated to baseball stadium issues. Edwards was wanting to sell, the price was right, and the Rays saw an opportunity for horizontal expansion to a new business related to their core mission.

Brian Auld, Bill Edwards, Matt Silverman, and Jake Edwards

Al Lang Stadium’s focus will remain Soccer and Concerts

The Rays or the city will not be permitted to reconvert Al Lang Stadium to a baseball configuration for at least five years, per the purchase agreement, and it would appear that Edwards’ Big Three Entertainment, which has the contract to operate Al Lang Stadium, will transfer to the Rays for all soccer events.

Beyond Rowdies games, Al Lang Stadium has also become home to professional soccer spring training, hosting the MLS Suncoast Invitational as well as the Florida Cup, bringing international teams and their fans to the St. Petersburg waterfront.

Meanwhile, per both teams’ press releases, Edwards’ Big 3 Entertainment will continue to produce the much-loved Al Lang Live concert series in partnership with Live Nation, and remains manager of the neighboring Mahaffey Theater. Edwards also owns and operates the Sundial lifestyle center.

Non-soccer programming was Silverman’s focus throughout the press event.

What else should you know?

  1. The Tampa Bay Rays are the third Major League Baseball team to invest in a USL soccer club, following the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Separately, the New York Yankees play host to New York City F.C. in Major League Soccer, the US’s top division or professional soccer, and have joint ownership of the club with Manchester City of the English Premier League.
  2. The USL currently has 33 teams (with the planned expansion of nine more), including 21 teams that serve as Division II affiliates of MLS clubs, and the top division is currently undergoing expansion and is continually accepting bids for new franchises, with some bids coming from USL clubs lobbying for promotion. MLS currently has 23 teams, with three expansion clubs announced in Miami, Nashville, and Cincinnati. The Rowdies submitted an expansion bid but were not finalists for expansion in 2017, while Sacramento and Detroit were finalists but not selected. You can read more from the Times on the Rowdies bid here.
  3. The Rowdies have a strong local youth focus, a common element of professional soccer clubs, which was detailed in the team’s press release:

Since Edwards’ acquisition of the Rowdies, ticket sales and attendance have increased dramatically, with home games each bringing more than 5,500 fans to downtown St. Petersburg. The local business community has rallied to support the team as well, with sponsorships climbing to unprecedented levels. The Tampa Bay United Rowdies Youth Soccer Club has expanded to serve more than 3,200 young players each year; and active affiliations with local Youth Clubs and Athletic Associations serve nearly 13,000 youth from age 3-19.