ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg businessman and civic activist Bill Edwards announced Thursday he has purchased the controlling interest in the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a professional soccer team based downtown at Al Lang Field.
“We intend to continue to build this team in St. Petersburg and preach to the visibility of it and keep it winning,’’ Edwards said. “We won in 2012, there’s no reason why we can’t win again this year.”
The Edwards Group also owns Big 3 Entertainment and the Mortgage Investors Corporation.
Former Mayor Rick Baker introduced Edwards to the crowd gathered at the Mahaffey Theater, which included Mayor Bill Foster, St. Petersburg city councilors and Rowdies players and fans.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Edwards said it was a three-month process to become the majority stakeholder in the team.
Beginning in late spring, the 2014 season will be the rebooted Rowdies’ fifth and their fourth in the reincarnated North American Soccer League. The NASL is officially North America’s second-division soccer league, operating below Major League Soccer, and is home to 13 teams, including the New York Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Rowdies won the 2012 Soccer Bowl and have played in St. Petersburg since 2011.
Edwards replaces Bern’s Steakhouse owner David Laxer as the team’s majority owner. Laxer will stay on board as a minority owner and retain his seat on the club’s Board of Directors. Team President Andrew Nestor retains his dual duties as president and general manager, as well as being a minority owner and sitting on the Board of Directors.
“We’ve increased the budget and done the things that we needed to do,” Edwards said. “We’ve got the right staff and all the pieces. Everything kind of stays the same. We’re just going to keep on going, make it more visible, make it more exciting and make sure we win games and make sure St. Petersburg has a great time at the games.”
Also included in Thursday’s announcement were plans for 1,100 new seats at midfield on the west side of Al Lang Stadium. The seats will offer two price points, club and reserved. Edwards is committed to keeping the team at that location, though it may require significant upgrades to the stadium’s backbone.
“I think in the future, that would make a wonderful 20,000-seat stadium for someone,” Edwards said. “Whether that happens or not is up to a lot of different factors, but that would be a great thing to see.”
With a new majority owner, the team expects its operating budget to increase with new players being brought in to bolster a roster that finished in third place in the NASL’s fall season.
The Rowdies also announced a new contract for coach Ricky Hill, who had his previous contract expire after this past season.
Hill was in his native England when he learned of Edwards’ purchase, but had already signed his new contract to return as head coach in 2014. Hill played for the Rowdies in 1992.
“As I’ve always stated, I’ve loved being set in Tampa,” Hill said. “I’ve had a great time in my three years being back. I’m in no hurry to go anywhere from here. We’ve won a championship with this organization and my aim is to compete to win every championship I partake in.”
Hill met with Edwards for the first time Thursday morning, saying it was a positive meeting.
“I have no doubt that Mr. Edwards’ commitment will be more than honored,” he said. “I sat down with Mr. Edwards this morning and found him very endearing. I hope we can have a great relationship moving forward and we can bring another championship to the Rowdies.”
Sports ownership is a new venture for Edwards, but he said he’s ready for the challenge.
“There’s nothing like having a winner and I’ve always wanted a sports team,” he said.