Last night in St Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rowdies who currently play in the lower division USL launched a bid to join Major League Soccer, the top league in the United States and Canada. Orlando City SC has averaged over 30,000 fans in its first two MLS seasons and will move to a new stadium next season which will play host to the club’;s MLS team, women’s team (the Orlando Pride) and the USL-based “B” team.
The Rowdies unveiled #MLS2StPete on Tuesday, a campaign to drive local support to demonstrate to MLS that the club is ready to be the next expansion team. The campaign also includes a privately funded renovation and expansion plan for Al Lang Stadium in Downtown St Petersburg. Currently, Miami is slated to claim the next expansion franchise but the David Beckham-led group behind expansion to South Florida has failed to work with existing local pro teams, secure a lucrative stadium site, or generate enough fan support or political will to move the ball forward. St Petersburg is a logical replacement for Miami.
“Major League Soccer is watched all over the world,” commented Rowdies owner Bill Edwards. “This move will bring national and international exposure to St. Petersburg, while also boosting tourism in the area. Bringing Major League Soccer to St. Petersburg will be a great economic driver for the entire region, and will serve as another platform to unify fans on both sides of the bay.”
“We are committed to expanding the world’s game right here in downtown St. Petersburg, and we feel strongly that joining Major League Soccer is the next logical step,” said Rowdies Chairman & CEO Bill Edwards. “We have met with MLS executives, including Commissioner Don Garber, and it is clear that they are looking at cities that have demonstrated their support for soccer via season ticket memberships, single game ticket sales and sponsorships.”
I put my views on Twitter last night related to St Petersburg versus Miami.
If MLS is serious about downtown stadiums, rewarding soccer fans and promoting clubs they’d drop Miami for St Pete/Tampa in a heartbeat.
— Kartik K (@kkfla737) December 7, 2016
Let me expand on those here:
St Petersburg has an actual stadium plan for MLS, a locale on the water (which is what MLS claimed they wanted in Miami but were unable to deliver) which is walkable from downtown restaurants, bars and business. The last six seasons the Rowdies have competed in the North American Soccer League (NASL) the league I previously was employed by and continue to be involved with in various capacities – Al Lang Stadium was far and away the best venue in the league in terms of accessibility.
Proponents of St Petersburg can also point to the consistent support for soccer at the lower levels the area has provided versus the hit-or-miss, spotty record in southeastern Florida. The local soccer infrastructure is better in the Tampa Bay area than southeast Florida which a much better and sophisticated youth club setup in the area. The Rowdies also boost a legacy brand that dates back to 1975 similar to that of the highly successful Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps FC in MLS. Miami’s team would be a startup with a manufactured name and no history to speak of.
The Rowdies would have a natural rivalry with Orlando City SC just down the road and would bring a large fan base up with it much like Orlando did when they moved from USL to MLS a few years ago. Miami on the other hand has never had any large organized supporters organizations and despite being given countless opportunities to demonstrate their desire to secure an MLS team they have not created momentum while the leaders of the fan movement have often acted as if an MLS team coming to Miami was an entitlement. Miami also lacks at least to my knowledge a deep-pocketed owner currently that can absorb the massive losses that come with an MLS startup – Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards on the other hand has the resources to absorb the initial start up/move up costs in MLS. But it should be noted the Tampa/St Petersburg TV market is actually larger than the Miami/Fort Lauderdale TV market though it is important to note that Miami’s MSA is actually much larger.
MLS tried and failed in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Tampa/St Petersburg markets before – those represent two of the three failed MLS clubs since the league began play in 1996. But the “failed” clubs played in an era when MLS and soccer had a much smaller footprint on the national landscape in addition to being based in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa respectively (this go-round it appears the clubs would be based in Miami and St Petersburg instead). MLS can work in both markets again, but the Tampa Bay market is far preferable for a quick start up which is certain to be successful than the Miami/Fort Lauderdale one.