I’ll admit Bill Edwards hasn’t been my favorite owner of a soccer club in Florida. The somewhat gruff and yet flamboyant businessman who transformed St Petersburg’s downtown wasn’t a soccer fan when he bought the Rowdies in 2014, and did a great deal to irritate core soccer people during his tenure as owner.
Edwards legacy however will be that he kept a team that had been financially a ruin for years afloat (I’m not sure Rowdies fans to this day really know how dependent on other owners in NASL at the time their club was financially in order to merely operate) and was able to eventually integrate the Rowdies into the greater landscape of Downtown St Petersburg. In the process Edwards is directly responsible for making the once largely irrelevant club that played matches in a vacuum a critical part of the local arts and entertainment scene.
Edwards completed the sale of the Rowdies to Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays earlier this week. The Rays have pledged to keep the club in St Pete for at least the next five years.
While the previous club owners had moved the Rowdies to Al Lang Stadium in Downtown St Petersburg, the club was not a vital part of the landscape of a city that has grown up a great deal the last decade. Edwards made the Rowdies a St Pete institution and part of the arts and entertainment scene close to the bayfront in the city. He also was able to make the club relevant in local political circles, something I can say as a person who has worked in both sectors is very difficult, particularly for a team not playing in MLS.
Under Edwards more consistent support for the club developed with attendances now safely over the 5,000 fan mark for every match and integration of the Rowdies into the general conversation in St Pete. A big reason for this is not just the marketing effort and synergies created by Edwards other business and ownership in downtown St Pete – it’s directly related to the better fan atmosphere created by stadium improvements and renovations Edwards funded himself.
The local soccer infrastructure is better in the Tampa Bay area than in the rest of the state and the area boasts much better and sophisticated youth club setup in the area. Under Edwards leadership, the Rowdies were really able to tap into this network in a meaningful way and eventually secure a historic partnership with Tampa Bay United.
The decision to leave NASL and join USL wasn’t well-received by some of the most hardcore Rowdies fans, but was ultimately a savvy business move that allowed the club to continue to increase its value and supporters base without being drawn into the drama of the ongoing battle between the NASL and US Soccer.
Edwards increased the value of the Rowdies brand to the point where its become an outlier among non-MLS pro soccer clubs in the US. With that in mind, Edwards who has been looking to sell the Rowdies had to make a decision – court bigger money offers from anywhere (perhaps his experience in helping to fund shortfalls for a rival club, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers who were suffering from Brazilian owners who didn’t pay bills on time or the continued drama in Orlando helped make his decision for him)or try and keep the club local, in the Tampa Bay area and preferably in Pinellas County. Ultimately Edwards choose the Rays.
“There are a lot of people that have courted us, but I wanted to keep it local, I wanted to keep it in town and I wanted to keep it here. I’ve known Matt (Silverman) since I’ve owned the team and I’ve banged into him in a lot of different places at speeches and roundtables and all this stuff and I realized he’s a neighbor. He’s been here for 13 years. He’s the boots on the ground for the Rays in this town and he’s one of us. He’s a local. I’ve gotten to realize that he’s a good, honest guy that’s going to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot of honest conversations about how the Rowdies will end up at the end of the day and we both agreed on the things we had to.”
Keeping the club in St Petersburg and connected to the current fan base, corporate community and arts and entertainment scene was critical for Edwards throughout his tenure. While it is annoying for some on the Hillsborough side of the bay who feel the club should be playing there, the Rowdies in time became something St Petersburg could call its own, and has Edwards’ stewardship to thank for that. Continuing that legacy was a consideration for Edwards as he bowed out.
“This is a great thing for St. Petersburg to have a major league sports team own the other sports team in town and be able to have them within miles of one another. I think it’s good for the city. I think it’s good for the people.”
Rays President Matt Silverman earlier this month made clear the importance of the Rowdies to the area.
“We’re all proud that Bill has chosen to pass the Rowdies torch to us and we’re excited to build upon the strong foundation he has forged to build the Rowdies brand and soccer in general throughout Tampa Bay. The Rowdies hold a special place in the history of Tampa Bay sports and it’s a brand with deep roots in our region. The Rowdies have always been Tampa Bay’s soccer team and they are especially proud to be the soccer team of St. Petersburg. We can’t think of a more fitting home for the Rowdies than Al Lang, especially with the investments that Bill has made into the historic stadium. It’s a wonderful public facility. The soccer environment there is electric and the fandom is intense. We’re eager to get to know Ralph’s Mob and we’re eager to engage with the Rowdies fans and supporters on how to continue the exciting trajectory that this franchise is on.”
Edwards did things his way and while it was irritating for many he was around, including other owners and board members in the league’s he played in, ultimately he showed he knew what he was doing all along. Tampa Bay area soccer from a local infrastructure and pro club perspective has never been healthier. That statement owes itself largely to Edwards stewardship of the Rowdies through choppy waters and into the mainstream of St Petersburg life, something making a club whose disappearance quite honestly appeared inevitable before he took over, now indispensable in then local landscape.