by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies took an expected but nonetheless important step toward a new era of ownership on Thursday afternoon, as the St. Petersburg City Council voted in favor of transferring the club’s current use agreement to operate Al Lang Stadium from Bill Edwards to the Tampa Bay Rays, who are expected to finalize their acquisition of the Rowdies later this month after the conclusion of the United Soccer League season.
Edwards’ Big 3 Entertainment has been the operator of Al Lang since October of 2014. With the sale of the Rowdies, the current agreement will remain unchanged but will be taken over by Rowdies Soccer, LLC, the corporate entity the Rays have set up to run the Rowdies. The transfer will not go into effect until the sale of the Rowdies is finalized. Edwards will no longer be involved with the Rowdies but has said he intends to still bring live concerts to Al Lang next year.
Thursday’s vote was straightforward. Edwards was present but did not address the council. The six council members present voted in favor of the proposal. Council members Charlie Gerdes and Darden Rice were the only ones to speak before the vote. Gerdes asked for confirmation that the language and the terms of the city’s current agreement with Edwards would remain unchanged, which he received.
Rice thanked Edwards for stepping up with his investments in both the Rowdies and Al Lang that have turned each into valuable assets. She also asked for clarification on a report that the Rays had made a five-year commitment to keep the Rowdies at Al Lang even though the current use agreement is set to expire in November of 2020. A city attorney noted that the five-year commitment is a specific provision between Edwards and the Rays in the deal to sell the club. The Rays would still need to secure an extension or new use agreement from the city to operate Al Lang with the Rowdies as primary tenants past 2020.
Edwards won the right to operate Al Lang a year into his ownership of the club after a public and legal battle with the previous operator, the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission. His agreement was originally set to expire at the end of this year, but Edwards and the city agreed to a two-year extension in late 2016. When the extension was agreed to, the agreement was also amended to add the USL to the “Permitted Uses” and “Termination” sections after the club’s exit from the NASL. Under the terms of the deal, the city has a right to terminate the agreement if the Rowdies are not a member of the NASL, USL, or Major League Soccer.
When the Rays were announced as the purchasers of the Rowdies, a lot of speculation arose about the possibility of the MLB club eyeing Al Lang as a possible site for future spring training baseball or even a backup plan if their Ybor City ballpark fails to materialize. Rays President Matt Silverman, though, tried to be clear when the sale was announced last week that the Rays viewed the purchase as an investment in downtown St. Petersburg, the Rowdies, and in Al Lang as a soccer venue.
Here is what the current Al Lang use agreement states under “Permitted Uses”:
The Facility shall be occupied, maintained, and used by Contractor for the primary purpose of providing the home field for the Tampa Bay Rowdies (“Rowdies”), a professional soccer team, and for other sports, leagues, teams, tournaments, camps, clinics, lessons, practices, games, strength and conditioning rehabilitation and training, sports related retail sales, and schools for umpires, coaches, players and agronomy.
Over the years, Edwards floated the possibility of expanding the capacity at Al Lang, which currently holds 7,200. When the club’s MLS bid was in full swing, the hope was to bring capacity up to 18,000-20,000 using $80 million of private money. Edwards stated last week he’s leaving the Rays with two possible designs to expand Al Lang on the table, one of which presumably would be a more modest proposal suitable for the USL. So far the Rays have shown no interest in pursuing MLS and have been quiet about the idea of expanding Al Lang in general. The new ownership group will likely focus on other priorities for the Rowdies in the short term before moving ahead with any proposal to expand Al Lang.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes