ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman dropped an intriguing idea while talking to sports talk radio station 620-AM on Tuesday morning:
He said Major League Soccer is interested in using the Tropicana Field site for a bigger soccer-orientated stadium that could host the Tampa Bay Rowdies and big soccer-related events, such as a world tournament.
His idea would come into play if the Tampa Bay Rays were to leave St. Petersburg for a new stadium, either in Tampa or somewhere else in Pinellas County.
The mayor's spokesman later clarified that statement to make sure everyone knew Kriseman was referring to future development at the Trop site — rather than using the dome itself for soccer.
Tropicana Field's 85-acres are perhaps the most valuable piece of downtown real estate in the bay area. Whether the Rays stay or leave the city, their old home seems destined for redevelopment.
The only question has been whether or not that plan will include a new stadium for the Rays. The city is already drawing up a master plan for the site with and without a baseball stadium, but there has never been talk of building a soccer facility there.
As for Kriseman's idea, it doesn't appear that he ran that gem by the local soccer community.
After the mayor said MLS commissioner Don Garber was "excited and intrigued" by the Trop site in his early morning interview, both MLS and the Rowdies released statements that basically said: Not so fast.
Rowdies owner Bill Edwards said in a statement that his team's current downtown home, Al Lang Stadium, was the site "submitted to MLS and voted on by the citizens of St. Petersburg … I never considered the Tropicana Field site as I support the Rays redeveloping and remaining at that location."
In fact, the Rowdies convinced voters to approve a May 2 referendum that would allow the team to upgrade Al Lang if MLS awards it an expansion franchise. If that were to happen, the Rowdies would negotiate a 25-year lease with the city and have pledged to spend up to $80 million to expand the stadium to 18,000 seats.
The MLS response was a little more nuanced. League spokesman Dan Courtemanche sent out a statement that said the league remains interested in Al Lang:
"To be clear, we are not interested in Tropicana Field as the primary home for the Rowdies if Tampa-St. Petersburg is granted an MLS expansion team in the future."
But he said say MLS is "open to evaluating other locations in the area that could be home to a soccer-specific stadium."
There's also the question of funding: Pinellas officials have discussed how to pay for a new stadium for the Rays, but nothing is guaranteed. No one, however, has discussed building a soccer facility. And while the Rowdies' referendum passed with 87 percent of the vote, those voters were told the Rowdies would pay for renovating Al Lang, not taxpayers.
Another wrinkle: The Rays have not yet decided whether they're leaving St. Petersburg. In a bid to keep the team, Kriseman negotiated a 2016 deal that gave the team a window to search for a stadium site in Tampa. But he still hopes to convince the team to stay in St. Petersburg, in a new stadium built on the Trop site.
"We're committed to the Rays," Kriseman said on 620-AM. "But if the Rays make a decision for whatever reason that this site isn't the best location for them — we certainly hope they stay in St. Pete or Pinellas County, or certainly the region. But if that's the decision they make, that site potentially could be a location for a larger soccer-orientated stadium that just wouldn't host the Rowdies, but host world tournaments. And (the MLS) commissioner expressed some interest in that."
Kriseman is locked in a re-election battle with former Mayor Rick Baker, who works for Edwards and was the public face of the Rowdies' referendum. Baker did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said they have some Pinellas sites in mind, and are waiting for Hillsborough County officials to weigh in. The team hopes to have a site picked out by the end of the season, but it could be by the end of the year.
Can St. Petersburg support both the Rays and the Rowdies?
"I think we can," Kriseman said. "I was very public in my support for the Rowdies stadium referendum. I think the city can support two teams. I visited earlier this year with the (MLS) commissioner in New York, and he and I have talked recently. He loves St. Pete, so I think we're in the running."