Tampa’s yet to be named women’s professional soccer team will begin its run by playing home games for several years at Howard W. Blake High School if Hillsborough County’s School Board agrees to a proposed agreement later this month.
The agreement, set to go before the board Oct. 17, calls for the new team to fully upgrade the existing stadium at the school and use the site to play its home games beginning next year.
According to Christina Unkel, president of USL Super League Tampa Bay and the memorandum of understanding needing to be approved, the team will assume all costs for the upgrades. It will also leave them in place when it moves to a permanent home at some point.
School district officials have recommended board members approve the proposal.
The improvements the team will bring include expanding the stadium’s capacity from 1,800 to around 5,000, installing new FIFA-approved turf and upgrades “that will be identified as plans are completed” according to a statement. The team also plans to work with school leaders to “identify beautification projects on the adjacent Blake campus.”
The team did not discuss the cost of the project when it announced its plans Wednesday, and the cost is not included in documentation on the agenda.
When asked if the price point was going to be closer to a couple of hundred thousand dollars or a couple of million dollars, Unkel pointed upward with her thumb. “The much higher end.”
“Which is incredible, right? Because those are monies and funds that the school wouldn't ever be able to see in capital improvements,” she says. “For us it's a way we can give back to the community, to know that they'll have these incredible facilities once we're out.”
Blake High School is near the University of Tampa in the city’s West River neighborhood, across the Hillsborough River from downtown and the popular Armature Works food hall.
Unkel says those amenities, particularly Armature Works, which is walking distance from the stadium, create a dynamic that pro sports teams often depend on to bring fans to games: options for pre- and post-game festivities. She says when the team was looking across the region for where to play, finding a place that had those types of amenities close by was key.
That, she hopes, will create the kind of atmosphere that will lead to fans marching to the stadium on game days as is they do in Seattle ahead of Sounders games.
“This is what we envision here,” Unkel says. “Gathering at Armature Works, going across that bridge right into the stadium. That type of energy. That type of feel. We're going to show you soccer — to the rest of the world football — and the energy that it brings.”
The stadium at Blake is only a temporary solution, though. The plan is to look for a sight for a long-term home. Unkel says there is no official timeline for the yet, but it could take as long as five years.
The team, which is owned by prolific Ybor City developer Darryl Shaw, David Laxer and Jeff Fox, will compete in the just launched USL Super League. Games will start in August.
The U.S.-based league will initially feature 10 to 12 teams based in cities including Dallas, Charlotte and Washington D.C. in addition to Tampa. Five other cities have will have teams that will start playing in 2025.
According to Tampa-based USL’s website, the league “has committed to U.S. Soccer’s Division One standards, reflecting its collective vision to be a global leader in women’s soccer on and off the field while providing more opportunities for more women in more communities.”
Unkel says the teams will follow a traditional fall-to-summer calendar that allows players to meet their international responsibilities, including playing for their home countries in the Olympics and World Cup.
Team coaches and officials in Tampa are currently working to put together a roster and developing strategy. Its official name and crest will be announced in a few weeks.
“Women's sports is no longer in the ground floor, Unkel says. “We're at the tipping point.”