Bill Edwards endured a health scare that forced him to take a step back from his businesses and beloved soccer team. Now he’s back, and ready to continue to reshape downtown St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg real estate impresario and entertainment businessman Bill Edwards acknowledges it was unusual for him to be out of the public eye for much of 2017 and into the early months of 2018.
“I spent about a year in a fog,” says the 72-year-old owner and general manager of the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer club, reflecting on the health scare that sidelined him, just as the St. Petersburg-based team was amid what would prove to be an unsuccessful push to join the Major League Soccer pantheon.
Edwards had double-bypass heart surgery in May 2017. Looking back, he says the time away from the Rowdies and his other business dealings — he also owns the Sundial shopping, dining and entertainment complex in downtown St. Pete, in addition to Big 3 Entertainment, which manages the city’s Mahaffey Theater — helped teach him the latest in a series of lessons he’s learned from the classic texts of the School of Hard Knocks.
While Edwards is known mostly for owning the Rowdies, he maintains a significant real estate portfolio. His investment company, the Edwards Group, spent $12 million to acquire and assemble vacant land in downtown St. Pete now being developed by the Kolter Group LLC. Kolter is building the 41-story One St. Petersburg tower there, which will help reshape the city’s skyline.
“It was a big deal to unlock that parcel for downtown St. Pete,” says Greg Holden, the 2016 chairman of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and an area financial planning executive. “The number one characteristic of Bill’s success is his bold vision. That’s what you have to do when you are a leader.”
That, and have a deep perspective.
“I’ve had three life-threatening instances in my life — one was when I was in the Marines, in Vietnam; one in the '90s; and now with the double-bypass, and each time, it’s enlightened me,” Edwards says. “Each time, it’s changed my life for the better. I got closer to my family, my children, and that was huge. I work out more now, as much as I can, and I’m feeling better. It’s changed my life in a lot of ways.”
MAN WITH A PLAN
Despite the Rowdies not making the cut for the first round of MLS expansion — although the team’s bid is still alive — Edwards has come roaring back with a plan to bring even more high-profile live entertainment to downtown St. Pete. It's a city he’s grown to love and call home after a childhood in Boston and a detour to Detroit as an adult.
“He’s come back swinging. When he came back, he came back with gusto.” Greg Holden, vice president of Manning & Napier Advisors in St. Petersburg, on Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards’ return to the public eye.
In May, Big 3 Entertainment announced a deal with Live Nation that will bring performers such as Counting Crows, Lauryn Hill, Poison, Collective Soul, 3 Doors Down and Soul Asylum to Al Lang Stadium, the downtown waterfront home of the Rowdies, for a series of outdoor concerts. The shows are intended to goose economic activity for downtown hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers during the slow summer months. Edwards’ company has also booked a slate of high-profile speakers and entertainers — ranging from Joe Biden and David Blaine to Donny and Marie Osmond — for shows at the nearby Mahaffey Theater.
Edwards says he looked across the bay, to downtown Tampa, for inspiration when considering ways to “activate” what he views as underutilized real estate — namely, Al Lang Stadium. He points out Amalie Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning, is often a hive of activity — thanks to concerts, circuses, conferences and other events — when the Bolts are on the road and during the NHL offseason.
“How can you afford to pay for the seats and the electricity and all the rest of it if you don't have other income coming in from an asset that's sitting there underutilized?” he asks. “In our little corner of the world down here at Al Lang, there's no reason why we can’t have five to 10 summer concerts and fully utilize the stadium."
Edwards says ticket sales for the events have been brisk, and it's not just locals.
“We did a study of the people who are buying tickets and about 60 to 65% have been bought in the five-county [Tampa Bay] area,” he says, “but the other 35% were bought in Austin, Texas; Chicago; Alberta, Canada; and all these other places. So we know that people are going to come and need rooms. They're going to spend time here. They're going to shop here; they're going to eat here."
Hot on the heels of the concert series announcement, Edwards made more headlines in mid-May, when he cut ties with Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell, elevating veteran Tampa Bay player Neill Collins, 34, to take his place. Collins owns and operates NC3 Coaching Academy in Lakewood Ranch in east Manatee County.
The hiring follows one of Edwards' guiding principles of his business career: to groom people for leadership. “Don’t hire bosses — make bosses,” he says.
Another key piece of the team’s future — its bid to join MLS — presented Edwards with a roadblock he hopes to turn into an opportunity. MLS chose Nashville and Cincinnati for its latest round of expansion — a disappointment, to be sure, but that brings the number of teams in the league to 26 and it wants to get to 28, which leaves the door open for the Rowdies.
Edwards’ plan to upgrade Al Lang Stadium, via $80 million in private financing, already won the approval of St. Petersburg voters in a 2016 referendum. Now he says he might go ahead with improvements regardless of whether the Rowdies join MLS or stay put in the second-tier but rapidly growing United Soccer League.
“I have two different business plans,” he says. “As a businessman, you have to make a decision: Which one’s better for me? Which one’s better for the fans? Which one’s better for … whatever? You make those decisions and then you move on. This is our second year in the USL and we’re very satisfied with the competition."
MLS expansion would not come cheap, says Holden, vice president of Manning & Napier Advisors in St. Petersburg and leader of the Rowdies Council, a volunteer group that drums up business community support for the team. As soccer’s popularity has grown in the United States, MLS has hiked its franchise fee to $200 million — and that’s just to get into the club.
“Major League Soccer, they don't just want a billionaire; they want several billionaires,” Holden says. “They want a David Beckham and a Spice Girl sitting on the sidelines at every game. So I think that’s part of the magic that Bill is trying to pull together.”
Edwards doesn’t deny that he is looking to bolster the Rowdies ownership team with additional investors. The process, he says, is confidential, but he indicates investors with deep ties to professional soccer would be top the list.
“Everybody has a partner,” he says. “Sometimes you have to go out and get other people to make things work and get input, and you know I’m no authority on soccer. Five years ago, I had never even been to a soccer game, so I’ve learned the sport quite a bit, but certainly I’m no expert; I’m still learning; but I’ve learned enough to realize how to run the team and get it where I wanted it to go.”
Edwards is similarly coy when asked whether he intends to remain majority owner of the team if/when additional investors come onboard, saying only he intends to “play an active role with the team for many years to come.”
Unlike many a pro sports team owner, no one could accuse Edwards of being a hands-off, passive executive. His office in western St. Petersburg overflows with Rowdies memorabilia, and he is quick to drape team scarves around visitors’ necks and pose for photos with them. He loves talking about the team and is quick to make decisions about it based on a sense of personal responsibility that has shaped the way he’s done business over the course of his entire career.
“Don’t hire bosses — make bosses." Bill Edwards, owner and general manager of the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“I look at things differently than a lot of entrepreneurs,” Edwards says. “I look at people who, if they’re not doing well [in their jobs], it’s my fault. If they’re not succeeding, it’s my fault. I look at myself as being responsible for everything that’s going wrong and then it’s my job to fix it."
That attitude has impressed people who’ve been pulled into Edwards’ orbit. Like Holden, a Business Observer 40 under 40 winner in 2017 who first met Edwards after the mogul arrived in St. Petersburg and bought the beleaguered Rowdies franchise in late 2013.
“Bill did not cut corners,” Holden says of Edwards’ free-spending efforts to rescue the Rowdies from the brink of annihilation. “And so he has not been willing to discount tickets to put butts in seats. Many of the other USL teams give heavily discounted tickets out, and that’s helpful; you can get big [attendance] numbers that way. But when you think about your path to Major League Soccer, you really want to have fans who see the value proposition and are willing to pay to be part of it. Also, when you look across the country at sports franchises, the ones that are most successful, and almost all the ones that have true fan love and loyalty, have strong local ownership representation.”
Work ethic and dedication to community are two other key Edwards strengths, says Holden. “Bill doesn't have to put his capital at risk in St Pete. He could do that in a lot of places and spend his time in a lot of places," Holden says."But he sees the opportunity in St. Pete and he cares about making the place better and leaving his mark.”
Holden, who says the colorful Edwards is prone to say things both profound and profane, has come back from his medical leave with vigor. “He’s come back swinging,” he says. “When he came back, he came back with gusto.”