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New pro soccer team to announce stadium plans in Tampa

TAMPA — Community leaders are having a hard time getting to first base on talks about a new stadium in the region for baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.

But a group of investors says it plans to build a nearly 30,000-seat, $400 million stadium somewhere in Central Tampa by 2016 — for pro soccer.

And it doesn't plan to ask taxpayers to help pay for it, say Hills­borough County officials.

VisionPro Sports Institute Holdings, based in the United Kingdom, has previously announced plans to start the equivalent of a minor-league professional soccer team in Tampa starting next year. A website for its affiliate in the United States, VSI Flames Inc., says the organization ultimately aims to establish a Major League Soccer franchise here and has other ambitions.

Details are sketchy. But a website for the stadium proposal, and an invitation to public officials for a Dec. 11 announcement about it at the Tampa Club downtown, offer some high points:

• Construction of a 28,888-seat, retractable-roof stadium that would open in March 2016 at an as-yet-undecided location, but somewhere "in the heart of Tampa." The stadium, at less than half the seating capacity of Raymond James Stadium, would be designed specifically with soccer in mind.

• Development of an adjacent, $250 million sports medicine complex for treatment of injured athletes of all sports.

• Establishment of a $50 million, 20-field soccer complex somewhere in Hillsborough County, with a "mini-stadium" of about 4,000 seats. It would serve as a player-development academy as well as a possible location for youth tournaments.

• Erection of a temporary stadium of 6,000 to 8,000 seats in central Tampa to be its team's home until a permanent arena is built.

Pro soccer has tried to establish a toehold in the region since the 1970s. Local government officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to the latest dramatic proposal, especially since no one is asking for a public handout.

"They specifically said they weren't looking for any government money," said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill. "They said they could raise all of the money that they needed to build the stadium and the other facilities and manage the team. That was notable."

Other county officials said they were surprised by this week's invitations.

County officials had been in talks earlier this year with VSI about potentially forming a partnership to create a soccer complex with a small stadium for professional or semipro competitions.

Commissioners, in fact, agreed to set aside $15 million for a project of 14 to 20 soccer fields, though a location hasn't been picked. From what county officials can tell, the VSI proposal is separate from that.

County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department director Mark Thornton said he hasn't heard from VSI representatives in at least two months.

"It came out of leftfield for all of us," Thornton said. "I'm really intrigued with this whole stadium proposal."

It has been a year since the United Soccer Leagues announced it had awarded a pro franchise to VSI. As part of the announcement, the company established developmental league teams for men and women aspiring to reach the pro ranks either in the United States or overseas. It also launched a youth academy based in Brandon.

The announcement heralded competition in the pro soccer market. St. Petersburg already is home to the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the rival North American Soccer League.

With the addition of a franchise in Phoenix and the VSI team, the USL pro lineup would grow to 13 teams next year, the closest in Orlando.

"I think their long-term ambition is to bring major league soccer to Tampa Bay," USL president Tim Holt said of his Tampa franchise. "We look forward to working with them at the professional level."

VisionPro's corporate website says its investors are soccer players, ex-players and managers from what is commonly known as the English Premier League. It has established youth academies in Spain and Portugal.

The stadium website indicates VSI's money-raising partner for this project is Orlando-based PRI Partners, which counts among its founders Mike Cameron, former president and chief executive officer of Zephyrhills Water.

Attempts to reach representatives of VisionPro and PRI Partners were unsuccessful.

Professional soccer first came to the Tampa Bay area in 1975, when the expansion Rowdies won the North American Soccer League title in their inaugural season.

Through the team's glory years in the late '70s and early '80s, the Rowdies routinely played in front of crowds over 25,000 at Tampa Stadium. A Fourth of July match in 1980 drew more than 56,000 fans.

But the NASL dissolved in 1984. The Rowdies would carry on in a succession of smaller leagues before folding in 1991.

A new professional league, Major League Soccer, awarded Tampa Bay a franchise when the league started play in 1996.

But the league shut down the Tampa Bay Mutiny after six seasons, citing a lack of local ownership.

A new version of the Rowdies joined a new incarnation of the NASL in 2010, operating as a 2nd division league to Major League Soccer.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

New pro soccer team to announce stadium plans in Tampa 11/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 12:01am]
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