Former Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards speaks following the purchase of the club by the Tampa Bay Rays in October. | Photo courtesy Aaron Cranford / USL
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As the club’s longest serving player, Tampa Bay Rowdies veteran Georgi Hristov knew better than most what life at the club was like before the Rowdies were purchased in December 2013 by local businessman Bill Edwards.
And, after five seasons that have seen Hristov make history on the field and Edwards turn the Rowdies into a dynamic, successful business off the field, the Bulgarian forward has nothing but gratitude for the changes he had seen that made the club what it is today.
“He made so many changes and put so much money into something that no-one was sure it was going to work,” said Hristov recently. “The Rowdies were in trouble before he got in charge, so he invested in us and put us where we are and we’re very recognizable in the Tampa Bay area.”
The sale of the Rowdies to the Tampa Bay Rays was a move that reverberated around the USL, bringing in another world-class ownership group to the league’s already-impressive collection across the United States and Canada. That the Rays leadership had interest in purchasing the club, though, was principally due to the investment and time that Edwards put into the club.
The investment in particular to the club’s home at Al Lang Stadium – which included the addition of a new sideline stand in 2014 and a major $2 million overhaul for the rest of the venue in 2015 – and the club’s offices within the same facility made the venue one of the most unique and scenic in North American soccer. While Edwards drove the investment, he paid tribute to the people who made the vision come to life when he visited the pregame show at the Rowdies’ final home game of the 2018 USL regular season.
“I’m proud of it all,” Edwards told host Heather Donnelly. “I’m proud of the people. The people in this town, the people that work in this team and all the rest of the gang, all the people who work here who have done just a phenomenal job, I’m just very proud of them and what they’ve done because without them we couldn’t have ever done this.”
Former Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards (center) with Tampa Bay Rays Presidents Brian Auld (left) and Matt Silverman (right). | Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies
The investment wasn’t just put into the stadium. Edwards also put money into the on-field product, including bringing former England international Joe Cole to the Rowdies in the spring of 2016. Cole has made 82 league appearances for the club, scoring 20 goals and recording 14 assists while fully enjoying the experience playing for the Rowdies has provided.
“Bill did something for me 30 months ago for which I will be forever in his debt,” said Cole. “What a great guy, a great man of St. Pete. He’s done a fantastic job and you can’t speak highly enough about him.”
The competitive spirit Edwards has brought to the team is something that the club’s players certainly won’t forget in a hurry. While the Rowdies didn’t win a championship under his stewardship, there were no stones left unturned in trying to find ways to help the clubs succeed on the field.
“He’s a very passionate man,” said Hristov. “The energy he has for a man his age, it’s amazing, and it’s been helping us in many situations, coming into the locker room before games and trying to give us good vibes.”
This week’s retirement announcement by Cole – adding to the previous announcement by the Rowdies that Hristov’s sixth season at the club had been his last as the club moves in a new direction this offseason – only added to the sense of the end of an era for Tampa Bay. As the Tampa Bay Rays and Head Coach Neill Collins seek to rebound after a year in which the club missed the USL Cup Playoffs, the winds of change are set to blow through Al Lang Stadium.
But just because he doesn’t own the team anymore doesn’t mean you won’t see Edwards at the club’s home games anymore either. Edwards has said he’ll still have his seats behind the Rowdies bench next season, this time as a fan rather than an owner, as the club’s new era under the Rays’ leadership begins.
“[The Rays] are the people who should be doing this,” Edwards told Donnelly. “I never attended a soccer game before I owned the team, so I was struggling with trying to figure out how soccer really worked. I equated business to it and made it successful, and now it’s successful enough to where someone can pick it up and run with it, and I think they’re the perfect people for it. They’re here, they’re local and they understand this.”
From left to right: Former Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, Mayor of St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman, USL President Jake Edwards and Rays President Matt Silverman. | Photo courtesy Aaron Cranford / USL
As Edwards’ tenure at the top of the Rowdies comes to an end, he’s left the club in a far more secure and stable position than when he arrived. That above all will be his legacy at the club.
“It’s been a five-year play that has taken a long time,” Edwards told Donnelly. “We’ve gone through a lot of different changes in the team and the landscape and in the city and the sponsors and everything, and I think we’re a team that has gotten to the top of where we should be and it’s very exciting to turn over something that’s doing very well.”
“The difference in professionalism that he applied to the Rowdies, and to get to where the Rowdies where we are right now,” said Hristov. “All the people recognizing us in the Tampa Bay area, the stadium looks way different, our locker room, for us, that’s our office and it looks unbelievable.
“It’s amazing what he’s done for us.”