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A Glimmer of Hope

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  • | 11:00 a.m. January 12, 2018
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In late November, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and their outspoken owner, area property magnate Bill Edwards, found out they would not be one of the contenders for Major League Soccer's next round of expansion.

Insiders close to Edwards and the team, however, believe the Rowdies' odds of clinching a future expansion slot remain better than average.

MLS wants to expand from 24 to 28 teams in the coming years, and it plans to hold two rounds of expansion to meet that goal. In early December, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento were announced as the four finalists of the present round. Of those, Nashville and one other, yet to be announced, will begin play in 2020 — growing the league to 26 teams.

That leaves two additional, post-2020 expansion slots, meaning the Rowdies' bid isn't dead. Far from it, if you ask Greg Holden, vice president of investment firm Manning & Napier. A Business Observer 40 under 40 winner last year, Holden is also co-chair of the Rowdies Council, a volunteer group that builds support for the St. Petersburg-based team among the Tampa business community.

Holden says it's telling that MLS has been slow to announce the second team to join the league alongside Nashville. “Things change quickly in the world of professional sports and stadium finance,” he says. “It was only a few months ago that St. Louis and San Diego were considered the favorites for this first round of expansion and referendum woes veered them both off course.”

In addition to a privately financed, $80 million plan to more than double the capacity of Al Lang Stadium, home of the Rowdies, Edwards' bid also boasts a team increasingly supported by enthusiastic fans. Led by British football legend Joe Cole, in 2017 the Rowdies made a deep playoff run and set a new attendance record despite having one of the highest average ticket prices in the United Soccer League.

“This is important,” says Holden, “as other clubs vying for MLS entrance with higher average attendance have much lower average ticket prices, raising questions of how many of those fans would convert.”


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