MLS Expansion Opinion: Rowdies Next Step?

Lets be honest, the Rowdies are at a point where the heat is starting to be felt over the MLS Expansion bid for the next set of teams to join the league. MLS announced in December of 2016 that they would be seeking the next set of Expansion teams and announced the markets to keep a watch for while they decided. Usually team announcements begin in August, ie: Minnesota United, but have run through the month of November, Orlando City SC. This year the league’s board is looking into 10+ teams, and says the voting for teams 25′ and 26′ will be made in December at their MLS Cup meeting, per MLS. But take a step back, what happens if the Rowdies dreams to return Tampa Bay to the MLS aren’t realized and what is the next step?  Could it be possible the bid is already lost?

Al Lang Stadium (Photo: Tampa Bay Rowdies)

Recently Rowdies owner Bill Edwards has also become a defendant in a trial in which his company, Mortgage Investors Corp, being the remaining members in a case owing the federal government $108 million. This sits very uneasily in the stomachs of Rowdies fans, already concerned with the security of Edwards’ assets and the Tampa Bay Times agrees. Writer Susan Taylor Martin writes “‘Edwards’ plan to expand St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium at private cost to accommodate a Major League Soccer team if one is awarded to the city. Some have questioned what would happen if Edwards were forced to pay a huge judgment in the whisteblower case and couldn’t afford to finish construction.” Financial security proves to be a key factor moving into MLS, citing the previous MLS failures in Florida were due to a lack of stable investors in the teams.

Though the bids have yet to be announced but the scariest piece of news for the MLS to Tampa Bay bid came out as MLS has all but confirmed Miami as an MLS franchise. While Miami is not as close as Orlando to Tampa Bay, the league would be hesitant to award a 3rd franchise to the Sunshine State, especially after the failures that initially led to the decline of the league’s impact in the first place. But the one factor in that keeps the hopes of the First Division dream alive in this aspect is that MLS seems to have an unnatural obsession with rivalries. Something that Orlando and Tampa Bay have.. After seeing success in the NY Metro area, with NYCFC and the NYRBs, and now the developing manufactured rivalry between OCSC and Atlanta Utd, a closer rival in Florida for the explosive OC Lions may be beneficial to the league as well as the Rowdies’ organizations while allowing Miami to grow as a budding independent market and create a Florida tier tournament reminiscent of the Rocky Mountain Cup. 

Critics have also cited Tampa’s support for professional soccer as an underlying issue for MLS returning to the bay area. With the  Mutiny’s numbers dropping into the 4-digits near the end of their run, and an unsuccessful streak of USMNT matches in Raymond James stadium, fans in Tampa Bay have not always come out as a community that has a soccer history running through them. Nashville is currently a seat for the MLS bid, coming out as a surprise run after drawing 47,622 for a USMNT game vs. Panama while Tampa was only able to draw 23,368 for a match vs. Martinique. Granted, Nashville had an Saturday afternoon match while Tampa had a midweek night match. Nashville SC U-23 is a member of the PDL which is lower tier than the USL the Rowdies compete in. Another scary issue should be that top attendance for soccer in Tampa has been on a decline since its inception with the NASL Rowdies hitting 56,389 vs. the NY Cosmos in 1980, the Mutiny topping out and avg. of 13,106 in the 1999 campaign in MLS, and the NASL Rowdies topping out an avg. of 6,066 with sellouts reported at 7,010 in several occasions. But with dwindling attendance at most sports, with regards to the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL who are having a tremendous time drawing crowds, Tampa Bay might not have the support that it requires to support such as many franchises as it holds. Yes, Orlando City had worse USL attendance records than the Rowdies before entering the MLS and have erupted since, but the markets are completely different and the popularity of the sport in the Orlando metro area has become the main backbone of the professional sporting environment. Soccer seems to be a different brand of its own, like a rose in concrete surviving and thriving in markets in which it should have never made it, ie; Seattle, so in that aspect Tampa could explode like Orlando did… if they are to acquire the MLS bid this Winter.

Fans in Tampa Bay (Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies)

Fans in Tampa Bay (Photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Rowdies)

The biggest question that is likely rattling around the backs of fans minds is, what happens if Tampa is unfortunate enough to not earn the bid the ownership has so adamantly sought since taking acquisition of the franchise. The Rowdies had their referendum approved to get a longer stadium lease and expand the property of Al Lang, but Edwards has only promised to move forward with that plan if the bid is to be secured, per Tampa Bay Times. This a key factor to the future and the expansion of the Rowdies. A few years back Coin Flip Soccer released an article covering the factors the Rowdies had to make progress in and their standings as an MLS competitor. In this opinion the Rowdies have an adamant fan support, the base of which has only seen grow since the team has blossomed in downtown St. Pete, but lacked a decent stadium plan. The stadium plan is in place, and slightly offset recently by mayoral incumbent Rick Kriseman, but the idea behind the stadium expansion could be ridiculed for its in abillity to connect the stadium together. But beyond the MLS bid, fans who should be concerned about the futures of their team from behind the scenes. Soccer teams have an interesting life span in the states, it would be a shame if the Rowdies were to be sold again or to fold if the capital goal of the franchise moving up doesn’t end up working out. The fans are here, but they aren’t exactly hungry for MLS as much as they crave professional soccer in the Tampa Bay Area. Attendance numbers from the modern Rowdies NASL era are almost equal to the current numbers the Rowdies are garnering since their MLS announcement, pretty much proving that fans are more interested in the soccer market itself regardless of where it stands or goes. But if they are to enter the First Division, fans may be in for the rude awakening that is Major League Soccer.

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