Featured, Major League Soccer, May 2017

St. Pete Says “Yes” To MLS: Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Rowdies Referendum Vote

St. Pete said Yes to MLS in a resounding vote of approval for Al Lang Stadium expansion Tuesday.

Neil W. Blackmon

The quest to return Major League Soccer to the Tampa Bay area received an enthusiastic jolt from the voting public yesterday, as St. Petersburg voters overwhelmingly said “Yes” to giving Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards and The Edwards Group authority to transform Al Lang Stadium into a venue that meets MLS standards. The ballot measure, which won 87 percent of the vote, will allow city officials to negotiate a 25 year lease of Al Lang Stadium with Edwards and authorize a capacity increase from the current 7,000 limit to 18,000. The proposed $80 million renovation and expansion will be privately funded and is contingent on being awarded a MLS franchise. 

Bill Edwards issued the following statement on the vote through a club press release Tuesday night:

“I am grateful to the citizens of St. Petersburg for passing this important referendum…St. Petersburg is very protective of our incredibly valuable waterfront– as is appropriate. We have put together a stadium plan that enhances our downtown, is of a scale that is respectful to the waterfront and does not burden the taxpayers.”

Quite obviously, the referendum victory helps clear an enormous hurdle to bringing MLS back to the Tampa Bay area, and while the work to secure a franchise is far from done, the win helps St. Petersburg separate itself from some other contenders, giving the bid a jolt of momentum coupled with political willpower absent from many of the other contenders. 

Following the vote, a jubilant Rick Baker,  the current president of The Edwards Group, addressed green and yellow clad supporters at a victory party, calling it a “great day for St. Pete and Rowdies soccer.” Baker was especially careful to note that the vote sent a “loud and clear message” that St. Pete wants MLS.

Baker, a former mayor of St. Petersburg, literally campaigned door to door in the city to get out the vote, and explained to countless families what the Rowdies plan for Al Lang was, how it was not a request for taxpayer money and why the club and MLS expansion would preserve the integrity of the downtown waterfront. His comment that the vote sends a loud and clear message isn’t just the euphoric stuff of election victory, either. He makes a salient point about the message of the referendum.

Indeed, what’s so impressive isn’t that the referendum passed. It’s that it passed so resoundingly.

The breadth and range of the victory speaks in magnitudes about the organic support that exists for MLS in St. Pete. The Rowdies didn’t need to simply win the vote. They needed a complete victory. The scale was important precisely because, as my colleague Kartik Krishnaiyer pointed out in this space last week, local enthusiasm for MLS had beea lingering concern and criticism of the St. Petersburg MLS bid. The perception was that there was an enthusiasm gap between St. Petersburg and some of the other contenders, especially Sacramento and Cincinnati. The vote should assuage many of those concerns, especially after closer scrutiny.

The 87%  “for” endorsement is all the more impressive given that St. Louis, long considered an expansion favorite, lost a similar vote last month. And while it is correct that St. Louis’s vote involved dipping into the taxpayer coffers and St. Pete’s did not- there are other distinctions of merit. For one, St. Louis’s referendum campaign was largely media-driven. The hearts and minds dirty work of pounding pavement and knocking on doors was sidestepped for an immense radio, billboard and television campaign. This failed, to the chagrin of a passionate group of fans that deserved better. Meanwhile, Baker and Edwards and the Rowdies went door-to-door, opting against large scale media buys and instead focusing on retail politics and mailers. This was a winning formula, and not just for the referendum. The door to door, grin, shake hands and explain method works as a way of cultivating community relationships and building long-term support, things that matter a great deal in the often parochial world of American soccer.

Frank Rivers is a chef who has called downtown St. Petersburg home for 12 years. He’s a casual fan of the big European leagues and has only been to two Rowdies games in his life. But shaking a hand and speaking to a member of the ownership group gave him a sense of trust and a desire to see the project succeed. 

“There’s something to be said for passion,” Rivers told me. “There’s something to be said for an owner sending his top-level employees out to tell me my city is important to them too. They knocked on our door with a scarf on and a smile. They stayed fifteen minutes and answered our questions. That mattered a bunch. And it will matter when they get a team.”

Jessica Long, an avid international soccer fan just beginning to tune into the American domestic leagues, is an event planner with several clients in St. Pete. She agreed that the organic campaign built goodwill for the club generally. “For me, I was able to put a face on it,” Long said. “I could see how much the owner cared. You couple that with the way friends I have in Orlando feel about that club, and the way it has become such a vital part of their community. Why wouldn’t we want something like that here?”

These types of remarks shed light on how criticisms of current Rowdies attendance, or allusions to the failure of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, who played across the bay in Tampa at The Big Sombrero and later Raymond James Stadium, miss the mark. 

First, you don’t garner 87% of a referendum vote without significant community interest.

But aside from that obvious point, it is worth remembering that several years ago, this same community rejected a similar proposal by the Tampa Bay Rays to convert Al Lang into a new waterfront baseball stadium.  The Rays, coming off the club’s first trip to the World Series, were eager to get out of Tropicana Park, long regarded the worst stadium in Major League Baseball. They sought to capitalize on the World Series buzz by securing a new ballpark downtown. It didn’t work. Their June 2008 effort was resoundingly defeated, with many homeowners posting yard signs or window placards in opposition to the vote. Subsequent efforts generated buzz, but like last summer’s star-crossed “Baseball Forever” proposal, they ultimately died either before or shortly after getting off the ground. 

Differences in the demands of hosting baseball games 81 nights a year and MLS every other weekend account for some of the voter angst about baseball, to be sure. But the fact the city would overwhelmingly wrap its arms around MLS but not a Rays franchise that has won a ton of baseball games over the last decade can also fairly be characterized as an indicator of grassroots support.

The success and support of nearby Orlando City has inspired many in St. Pete to rally behind the Rowdies expansion push.

Further, while US Soccer is right to praise cities with tremendous lower-division club attendance, the lack of great lower-division attendance is not necessarily an indicator of a lack of fan support. Orlando City’s Division 3 attendance numbers were long-rumored to be inflated, and even taken at face value, no more than  adequate to good in the years leading up to  beginning play in MLS. But it is takes a good amount of mendacity and funky math to suggest that anyone could have imagined the way that city and club have embraced one another.  The reality is Orlando’s boon began in the build-up to having 60,000 fans pack the renovated Citrus Bowl to see toe meet leather against New York City FC, a culmination of tremendous marketing, savvy personnel moves by the front office and a city that truly desired the club’s presence. Orlando embraced MLS because the city wanted it there. And even though its lower division attendance was often good, it received a post-MLS bump because the MLS product is different and the idea that a fan is seeing the “best” the country has to offer is a significant draw. 

Atlanta, ripped by many for years in the buildup to Atlanta United’s first match as a poor choice for the league, is further proof that you can’t take lower-division attendance figures too seriously in evaluating expansion prospects. The NASL’s Silverbacks, who played just inside the Atlanta perimeter, had a reliable core of fans,  but as a whole the club was not a good draw. Most wrote this off as an unfortunate product of stadium location and the fickle nature of Atlanta sports fans for anything that isn’t college football. They expected Atlanta United to fail and succumb to the not-entirely fair, but easy to accept, “Atlanta as bad sports town” narrative. These people’s suspicions, as Doug McIntyre wrote beautifully at ESPN, were misplaced.

With a strong ownership group and a groundswell of public support for the club, the St. Pete MLS expansion bid shares the same strong fundamentals that have been a roaring success up I-4 in Orlando and up I-75 in Atlanta. So while attendance at Rowdies games is hit and miss, perhaps the referendum vote is a better signpost for organic support.

Today, the new Orlando City Stadium is one of the crown jewels in the American game and “The Wall” is one of the sport’s “must-sees” for fans. And St. Pete soccer fans like Micah Burnside, an investment banker who also lives downtown,  have taken notice.

“I’ve been up to Orlando to see Orlando City,” Burnside tells me. “It’s an incredible way to spend a Saturday, from the pregame on Church Street to the walk to the match to the purple scarves hanging in storefronts. And we have that in St. Pete. We can sell that in St. Pete. It would be ours, which is different than Tampa’s, like the Bucs or the Bolts (Tampa Bay Lightning) or really, even the Rays, who have never seemed eager to be St. Pete’s.” 

Al Lang, nestled in walking distance of all the nightlife, offers many similarities to the environment on Church Street. It isn’t hard to imagine downtown St. Pete, with its varied watering holes, street murals, waterfront shopping, jazz clubs and restaurants,  cloaked in green and gold on a Saturday evening in the spring or summer. And with expected seating just around 18-20,000, the intimacy of professional soccer is appealing for a city that still fancies itself a sleepy beach town. 

Call it the “Orlando City” effect if you want, but the proximity between the two Florida cities has soccer fans in St. Pete thirsty for something more. The club’s connection to the city has created regional envy, and an envy rooted in a desire to renew an old lower-division rivalry.  If Orlando City showed that MLS could work in Florida, and Atlanta has demonstrated it can work in the southeast, St. Pete wants to show it can work now where the Mutiny failed. And 87 percent of the vote seems to suggest that’s a widespread sentiment. That’s a heck of a start.

Neil W. Blackmon is co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon