Tuesday, December 6th, 2016 marked an exciting, although not overly surprising, moment in Tampa Bay Rowdies history. Team owner, chairman, CEO, GM, and, well, any other title you can think of, Bill Edwards, announced the club’s long-suspected intention to make it to the top tier of American soccer: MLS.
The announcement should surprise nobody who has followed the team relatively closely. Edwards has hinted at making a run at Major League Soccer since he bought the team in 2013. And while Edwards hasn’t exactly rubbed everyone in the soccer community the right way, nobody can deny his investment of effort and money into the Rowdies.
After a long-fought legal battle, he acquiring a lease to the Al Lang Stadium property from the city of St. Petersburg in 2014 and subsequently privately financed some major renovations to the dilapidated yet historic facility — new infrastructure, new chairs, renovated concourses, a new scoreboard, and additional seating. Edwards has also been no stranger to opening his pocketbook for player signings, including bringing in former Premier League champion Joe Cole to the Rowdies’ midfield in 2016.
Now, before even kicking a ball in the USL (after moving over from the unstable NASL this offseason), Edwards has his sights set on another transition.
After the initial thrill of the announcement, many fans and observers both locally and beyond the Bay inevitably asked the question: “Why?”
Why should Tampa Bay get another MLS team?
The question is a fair one. Tampa Bay, of course, was part of Major League Soccer when the league first began in 1996 — the “Tampa Bay Mutiny” were one of the 10 original MLS clubs. The Mutiny saw success early on, winning the Supporter’s Shield in ’96 on the feet of star players Carlos Valderrama and Roy Lassiter. However, the team folded in 2001. The death of the Mutiny will have many critics asking: if the first round of MLS in Tampa Bay failed, why should the area be given a second chance?
Well, basically Major League Soccer didn’t give Tampa Bay a fair shake. The Mutiny were doomed to fail almost from the beginning, arriving on unstable ground and faced with many subsequent tremors caused by the poor management of the league.
First and foremost, the league elected to create a totally new team identity for the Bay Area in the Mutiny rather than returning to the historic name Rowdies. The Rowdies were Tampa’s first professional team, and the first to begin the local tradition of using the “Tampa Bay” moniker. They won a championship in the ‘70s and had crowds of 50,000+ in Tampa Stadium to see Rodney Marsh and the Rowdies take on Pele and the New York Cosmos, arguably North America’s richest soccer rivalry. Rather than capitalize on the nostalgia and recognition of the established brand, Tampa Bay’s first MLS team was given a new name.
“Mutiny” itself isn’t a bad name for a sports franchise, especially in a city whose history is filled with pirate lore, annually celebrated with a beads-and-booze festival known as Gasparilla, the Floridian version of Mardi Gras. Even the Mutiny’s co-tenants were named the Buccaneers, and the stadium they played in had a gigantic pirate ship that actually fired cannons. But while the name made some sense, the way it was depicted was nothing short of, well… confusing. Rather than portraying a gang of rebellious swashbucklers armed with cutlasses, the team’s logos depicted a bat and some sort of spider monster, both contorted into the shape of an “M.” Huh? Former DC United president Kevin Payne and original Mutiny head coach Thomas Rongen explained in this Sports Illustrated article:
PAYNE: I told them, “I don’t get this [Tampa Bay] ‘Mutiny’. What’s with the symbol?” They said, “Oh, it’s a mutant bat.” “Okay, what does that have to do with Mutiny?” “You know — Mutiny, mutant.” I said, “Those are two different words with completely different meanings. They just share some letters. What are you doing?”
RONGEN: What the f — -? A mutant bat? What are we representing? Nike must have had a few guys smoking dope, coming up with the craziest things.
Needless to say, the aesthetic of the infant franchise did little to endear the fans.
Of course, branding can be fluid and changed, and maybe we would have seen a different type of Mutiny eventually if the team survived longer than it did. The bigger reason why the Mutiny failed was the ownership, or lack thereof. MLS owned and operated the Mutiny all 6 years of the club’s existence, hoping to sell the team to a local owner eventually. It never did.
Leagues are inevitably poor at running individual franchises for an extended period of time, and this case was no different. The team soon began racking up major financial losses, reportedly an average annual loss of around $2 million over the team’s six seasons. Operating costs only increased over time, due in large part to the team moving from the old Tampa Stadium to brand-new Raymond James Stadium in 1999. As the team didn’t own either stadium, the Mutiny had to essentially rent it to play there, and moving to the new facility initially increased the lease fee by $10,000 and escalated in subsequent seasons. The rent for stadium office space for team operations also increased by moving to Ray Jay.
The team’s success on the pitch fluctuated. The Mutiny had the most points in the 1996 regular season — the inaugural MLS year — but missed the playoffs in 1998. Partial blame for the drop in performance was the growth of the young league, as the addition of the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion in 1998 brought an expansion draft which poached players from the league’s established teams and thinned the overall talent pool. The biggest loss was 1996 MLS MVP Carlos Valderrama, who was “traded” to Miami prior to the 1998 season. MLS has an infamous history of unilaterally deciding which players will play for which team, and former Mutiny coach John Kowalski claims that the Valderrama trade was involuntary. The loss of El Pibe was a massive blow to the structure of the team. Without Valderrama around to funnel him assists, 1996 Golden Boot winner Roy Lassiter struggled to score goals and was soon traded as well. With the two centerpieces to the Mutiny’s early success gone, the team finished 12–20 and in 5th place in Eastern Conference. This is what we call the Snowball Effect, and it put the Mutiny in a precarious position.
The situation the league had put the Mutiny in made a purchase of the team unattractive to local businessmen. MLS had ongoing conversations with a reported 6–12 possible investors since the inaugural year, but no deal was ever agreed upon. The best chance the league had was the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and eventual owner of Premier League side Manchester United), Malcolm Glazer, who coincidentally had already made some money off of the Mutiny through the club’s lease at Raymond James Stadium. The Glazer family strongly considered making a deal, but unfavorable revenue projections and a reported spike in asking price left any agreement unsigned. The Tampa Bay Mutiny remained ownerless.
With no other options, MLS folded the team on January 8, 2002.
Tampa Bay’s second foray into the MLS waters has almost the exact opposite situation. The Rowdies have an established, dedicated owner in Bill Edwards, a man who wants to take his team to the top level and win a championship. Edwards and his group of businessmen and investors are prepared to privately fund the proposed $80 million expansion and renovation of the Al Lang site to create an 18,000+ seat soccer-specific stadium which is up to city code for waterfront property. Rather than being run by leagues, the Rowdies have run FROM leagues, recently jumping ship from the unstable and perhaps soon-to-be-dead North American Soccer League. The move from division 2 NASL to division 3 USL was seen as odd at the time, but we may soon discover it was move with great foresight. In addition to being more stable, USL has a closer affiliation to MLS, which would make any transition to the top level smoother. And as events unfold, USL may soon be granted D2 status by the USSF soon anyway.
The MLS situation in Tampa Bay isn’t perfect. There’s still hurdles to get past. Should the MLS award Tampa Bay a franchise, the city will need residents to vote on and pass a referendum to allow the stadium construction to take place. There are sure to be questions about the viability of the region supporting four top-division sports teams, especially with St. Pete neighbor Tampa Bay Rays’ perennial attendance problem. And, of course, there’s plenty of competition for the last few franchise slots in the upcoming final MLS expansions. Tampa/St. Pete was one of 10 locations acknowledged by MLS as current candidates for the final four spots in the league.
With regard to ownership, stadium plan, fan support, media market, and especially tradition, the Rowdies are in as good of a position as anyone else in the mix — and the prospective situation we have now is far brighter than what the departed Mutiny ever experienced.