by JAKE NUTTING
As the cost of owning and operating a Major League Soccer team continues to rise, the financial make up of each group bidding to join the league becomes increasingly important.
Tampa Bay Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards has fairly deep pockets, but bids with solitary investors are nearly unheard of at this point in the history of MLS.
The expansion fee to gain admittance into MLS is now at $150 million, but that would likely go up should the Rowdies miss out on being one of the next two expansion teams. Couple that price tag with the $80 million Edwards has pledged to fund the required expansion at Al Lang stadium, the increased salary, marketing and youth academy systems MLS requires and the cost starts to escalate quickly.
Edwards says the exact nature of the investment group he’s still putting together has not been set in stone, but he’s happy with the progress he’s made in the last year while seeking out investors and discussing the matter with investment companies.
In the meantime, though, he’s also engaging with moneyed locals in the Tampa Bay area to see if they’re interested in jumping on board with the Rowdies’ push for MLS.
“I’ve also talked to a lot of local wealthy folks who are in sports and who are not in sports and who are in big business, and it seems to me that there’s a good chance that the majority of the money will come from within here locally,” Edwards says. “That’s a little up in the air, but the bottom line to it is it’s nice to have options on that. If we want to go to institutional lenders and borrowers we can do that. If we want to, as part of the group, try to do it locally I think that’s a good option too.”
Asked if the potential local investors already involved with sports he’s talked with included any of the owners of the region’s three major league teams, Edwards was coy, saying “I’m going to leave that up to you to decide. I’m talking with high net worth people and I’m talking to the companies that raise money for this particular sport or other sports.”
The ownership of the Tampa Bay Rays would seem like a no-go given their focus on trying to secure a stadium deal on either side of the bay so they can remain in the area. The Glazer family of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a chance at getting in on MLS in the early days of the league with the Tampa Bay Mutiny but passed on the opportunity before eventually purchasing controlling interest in England’s Manchester United.
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik would presumably be the most receptive to a call from Edwards about investing in the Rowdies’ MLS bid. The two teams have had friendly relations with cross-promotions over the last few years and Vinik is no stranger to the world of soccer after serving on the board of directors for Liverpool FC for several years. Any involvement from Vinik with the Rowdies is just speculation at this moment, though.
Edwards is hopeful the Rowdies can become the “crowing jewel between the two cities that are connected by a very short bridge.”
He can certainly get a lot done with the considerable influence he wields, particularly in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. However, demonstrating there is enough interest throughout the entire region to support the Rowdies’ plan in St. Petersburg will be key. After all, the bid is only appealing to MLS if the backing and desire exists across the whole region.
“The name of the team is the Tampa Bay Rowdies,” emphasizes Edwards. “Bob Buckhorn, who is the mayor if Tampa, has tweeted out and posted on Facebook about his support for the Rowdies. Our bordering towns, and our group of fans that come here, and their mayors are all standing up and being counted — as well as the governor of this state, as well as the mayor of St. Petersburg. Everyone is getting on board to get this accomplished.”