By Jim Bleyer
A pending massive $150 million lawsuit against Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards will be the coup de grace against the team’s bid in becoming one of four Major League Soccer expansion teams by 2020, according to national experts who report on the sport.
Edwards, a high-profile St. Petersburg businessman with more than his share of legal troubles, is a defendant in a trial where his company, Mortgage Investors Corp, has been charged with cheating veterans with illegal fees.
MLS has said it intends to announce the next two expansion cities after its owners meeting in early December. Two more expansion markets will be announced at some point before the start of the 2020 season.
Financial instability now surrounds Edwards and all of his enterprises including the Rowdies. If MIC loses, it could be forced to pay an estimated $173 million. If neither the company nor Edwards are able to pay that amount, he could very well be forced to sell assets including two prized downtown properties: the Sundial shopping plaza and The Rowdies franchise, now in the North American Soccer League.
Mayoral camdidate Rick Baker is president of the Edwards Group.
The lawsuit states Edwards should be personally liable for any judgment in the case, alleging MIC cheated veterans and U.S. taxpayers in refinancing VA loans. Acording to whistleblowers, Edwards’ company violated the False Claims Act by over-charging veterans, charging unallowable fees and then deliberately concealing those from the VA to obtain taxpayer-backed guarantees for the loans. The suit says that “virtually all” of the 450,000 loans MIC handled were VA-backed refinancings.
Midfield Press, a website that follows all U.S. soccer leagues cited the Edwards lawsuit as a major detriment in the Rowdies joining MLS.
Chad Smith, MLS expansion expert writing in SB Nation ranks the Rowdies seventh of the 12 teams vying for a franchise. He notes, “The more I think about it, their dwindling attendance (probably too harsh of a word) bothers me. They aren’t selling out now. All the teams above them that have minor league teams sell out nearly every week (except Cincy, but that stadium is huge). Plus this lawsuit concerns me,” he added citing the Midfield Press report.
It also concerns soccer fans throughout the country. They expressed their outrage on Reddit.
It doesn’t help the Rowdies MLS cause that Edwards is suing the NASL asserting that he was defrauded into purchasing the team in the first place. The daisy chain of litigation continued yesterday when the NASL filed a federal lawsuit against MLS revoking its second division status.
The MIC lawsuit that might suck up most, if not all, of Edwards’ assets isn’t the only hurdle facing the Rowdies. Miami and its larger-than-life owner David Beckham is a slam dunk to obtain one of the four franchises. Not only it it unlikely that two Florida teams will be added, but Tampa is shoehorned between an existing franchise in Orlando and the projected one in Miami.
Few soccer fans are aware that MLS owners do not possess the franchises they represent. Instead, the league resembles socialism in that it is a single-entity business. All teams are owned by the league and all players are its employees rather than employed by the club. MLS pays the players.
Team “owners” pay an investment fee to MLS for the right to operate a team in a geographic area. They become league shareholders rather than franchise owners in a league that has publicly acknowledged it remains unprofitable.
Baker was the point man in promoting approval of a referendum allowing St. Pete’s Al Lang Stadium to be used for MLS should the Rowdies be selected as one of the expansion teams. As the Rowdies chances of being selected for expansion evaporates, so has Baker’s public cheerleading on behalf of the beleaguered Edwards.
Baker unquivocally stated during the campaign that, as mayor, he would not recuse himself from any deliberations and decisions regarding Edwards’ enterprises though still employed by him. Baker faces incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman in the runoff election Nov. 7.