MLS to St. Pete makes another dribble forward

The push to bring Major League Soccer to Tampa Bay took another dribble forward on Thursday.

The St. Pete City Council set a date of May 2 to hold a special election that could give the Rowdies owner the rights to Al Lang stadium for 25 years.

The Major League Soccer League is considering bids from 12 groups around the country, with Tampa Bay among them.

Rowdies owner Bill Edwards says the team has improved both on and off the field since he bought them in 2013.

"The last couple of years has been really great, we have been building and building," Edwards said.

Thursday, the St. Pete City Council voted to hold a special election on May 2 to allow the city to negotiate a lease for Al Lang, which he says he needs to convince Major League Soccer to select the Rowdies as one of its four new teams by 2020.

"It's a situation that I think most cities would be looking for where you are not asking for city money, you're going to do it yourself," he said.

But, there are twelve cities going for the four slots, including Detroit, Phoenix and San Diego. He pitched the idea to MLS in January in Times Square, arguing that Tampa Bay is the biggest media market without a team and wouldn't need to build a stadium from scratch.

He's promising to pay $80 million to beef up the stadium, and $150 million to the league.

"It's a very warm reception," he said of the January meeting. "We pulled out all the stops when we went to New York. We rented a big board in Times Square."

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For someone who has already donated to the arts, who has invested in numerous properties around St Pete and built even mundane things like parking garages, he says the Rowdies would be a lasting legacy. When he bought the team, they were drawing only about 3,500 to games. Now, they average about 6,000.

He believes that number would go much higher if the Rowdies jumped a level up to Major League Soccer.

"I think it's the best thing for the city," he said. "I am at an age now where this is my swan song."

Edwards will pay $270,000 for the special election as part of a $350 million total investment. MLS could announce two of the four teams in late summer. As for the vote on May 2, a simple majority is needed to begin lease negotiations.