Rays owner buys Rowdies, stirs speculation a dodge to get a new baseball stadium site (probably not, but maybe a dodge to spur speculation)

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is buying the Tampa Bay Rowdies USL club for … okay, nobody’s saying how much he’s spending on the team. But never mind that, because the Rowdies also have management rights to 7,500-seat Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, so cue the conspiracy theories that this is really all about finding a site for a new Rays stadium:

The Rays tried a decade ago to get a new baseball stadium built there and never fully let go of the idea — which is why there was immediate speculation there was more to the Rays-Rowdies deal than just control of a soccer team.

Most pointedly, were the Rays seeking an alternative St. Petersburg stadium site to their proposed new home in Ybor City, where talks have been ongoing to bridge the funding gap in completing that $892 million deal to build a Tampa ballpark?

Rays execs immediately pooh-poohed the idea, saying they just wanted to get into the soccer business. And there’s reason to believe them, as the reason why the Rays gave up on the Al Lang Stadium site in the first place is because it’s probably too small for even a smallish MLB stadium, so it’s not really a very good option — not to mention that the Rowdies don’t actually own the stadium, just management rights to it.

Ah, but if you’re looking less for a viable stadium site option than for a sorta-viable stadium site threat, now we’re talking. Rays execs have been talking up Hillsborough County, which is the Tampa side of the bay, as more accessible to fans; but Pinellas County, which is the St. Pete side, has more tax money available to help fund a stadium, partly because Hillsborough has already spent its hotel taxes on buildings for the Buccaneers and Lightning. So even if Pinellas officials may not be eager to spend this tax money on the Rays, it’s at least an option that Sternberg and company will likely want to keep open.

All of which is to say: Sternberg probably bought the Rowdies just to buy the Rowdies, but if it helps keep alive some semblance of a bidding war between the two counties, he’ll surely be happy enough to take that as a bonus. He hasn’t done a great job of shaking loose public subsidies for his team so far — he managed to get out of his lease clause that prevented him from looking for new stadium sites in Hillsborough, but that’s only given him a site with a giant funding hole that shows no signs of going away — but where there’s competition, there’s hope. And Rays fans had better hope it comes soon, because the team is … er, actually, coming off a surprisingly resurgent season with a host of exciting young players and turning a tidy profit to boot, so what was the big deal about the stadium again?