ST. PETERSBURG — Over the next few weeks, the turf at Al Lang Stadium will be ripped up and replaced, a $250,000 investment by the city to placate Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards.
The city may have to dig far deeper into its coffers, however, if it’s going to keep pace with Edwards’ ambitions for his soccer franchise.
After buying a controlling interest in the team in December, Edwards has made no secret that he wants the city to build a new 18,000-seat stadium to replace aging Al Lang. He successfully lobbied state lawmakers this year to designate the North American Soccer League as a major sports league, making $2 million a year in state subsidies available for a new Rowdies venue.
With the Tampa Bay Rays keen to move elsewhere, St. Petersburg leaders may soon have to decide if the city considered the home of spring training should shed its baseball identity and pin its future to soccer, the sport that has captivated most of the world but not become part of the fabric of American life.
“This is a crossroads,” said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “Soccer is a community builder. I’ve seen it in Seattle and Portland and other communities. There is something magical about soccer and I think it can do as much for our community as baseball did 100 years ago.”
The future of Al Lang is expected to be determined in the downtown waterfront master plan. City council last week approved spending $495,000 on the study that is intended to govern future development on the city’s famed waterfront.
Part of the input to the study will be a report from a panel of planning experts from the Urban Land Institute who recommended the waterfront baseball stadium be razed to make way for a multi-use stadium enabling the city to open up more of its famed public waterfront and to extend Beach Drive.
The Rowdies play in the North American Soccer League where average attendances are under 4,000. Edwards’ talk of a 18,000-seat stadium has fueled speculation that his long-term goal is to take the team into Major League Soccer, the premier soccer league in the United States.
“Certainly that would be a step up for us and I would keep it in consideration,” Edwards said.
But a multi-use stadium that could host soccer and baseball may not satisfy MLS, which made new franchises contingent on teams developing soccer-specific stadiums in urban areas. The league also has favored teams obtaining public funding for the new venues so they aren’t saddled with enormous debt, said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University and author of Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle over Building Sports Stadiums.
That was the case for Orlando, whose Orlando City Soccer Club will become an MLS team after the city and Orange County agreed to use bed taxes and other public funds to cover the bulk of a new $84 million stadium.
MLS, however, did recently bend its rules in awarding a franchise to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank beginning in 2017. Instead of a soccer specific stadium, the Falcons and the new soccer team will share a new $1.2 billion venue with a retractable roof and artificial turf that will replace the Georgia Dome. Taxpayers will contribute about $200 million to the project.
But would investing in soccer pay off for St. Petersburg?
Economic impact studies typically are based on estimates of attendances and how many people a stadium attracts from outside the area for events.
While still a minority sport, soccer average attendances in the once-financially shaky MLS have risen to 18,600, a 35 percent increase from the 2000 low of 13,700, according to Forbes magazine. That puts it ahead of the NBA and the NHL. The Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City have a waiting list for season tickets.
MLS recently signed an eight-year TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision worth a reported $90 million annually, and plans to expand the league to 24 teams by 2020.
But whether the investment in stadiums pays off for cities is harder to quantify.
Roughly $100 million of public money was used to build PPL park, home of the MLS team Philadelphia Union in Chester, Pennsylvania. The city has seen little economic benefit, said Eckstein.
“The money cities invest is rarely recouped given the current dynamic of professional sports where revenues nearly always go to the teams,” he said. “If they are thinking it would provide some activity that would define the community together and give them some common purpose, they might think that’s worth it.”
Both Steinocher and City Councilwoman Darden Rice, a Rowdies season ticket holder, see soccer as a good match for the city’s growing population of young, urban professionals. The shorter length of games — roughly two hours compared to three hours for baseball and football — means fans are more likely to frequent downtown bars and restaurants before and after, Rice said.
“We have a professional team that really wants to stay in the city and is coming to us and working with us,” she said. “I see that as something beneficial for the city.”
Rowdies fans are already a familiar sight in downtown bars before and after games. Ralph’s Mob, a passionate group of supporters that assembles behind the north goal at games, meet beforehand at MacDinton’s close to Jannus Landing.
The team has another advantage over new franchises. Although formed in 2008, the Rowdies use the same name, team colors and branding from the old Rowdies team that played at Tampa Stadium in the 1970s and ’80s, regularly drawing crowds of 25,000.
“You could make the argument that it’s one of the best known brands out there,” said Steinocher, who wants the community to begin a conversation about whether to embrace soccer.
Mayor Rick Kriseman is still hopeful that any future stadium on the Al Lang site can support the Rowdies, baseball and other sports. He recommended the city pay for the new field at Al Lang, declining an offer from Edwards to pay for the work that was contingent on the field not being converted to baseball in the winter.
Redevelopment of Al Lang would not require a referendum, but the public would get the opportunity to weigh in during the development of the downtown waterfront master plan.
The conversation may not be about preserving Al Lang, but whether to let go of the city’s 100-year tradition of baseball.
“Baseball is an important part of our city’s history,” said Peter Belmont, vice president of the St. Petersburg Preservation board. “That doesn’t mean maintaining a 1970s stadium.”