Team. FC Tampa Bay Rowdies
Sport. Professional soccer
Key. A new team, based on an old concept
Tampa used to be a soccer town. It may be yet again.
One year before the National Football League awarded a franchise to the city, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were crowned 1975 champions of the North American Soccer League — a fact that isn't even reflected on the current “City of Champions” signs.
Rowdies players were recognized all over the city, even out of their green-and-yellow uniforms. One such player, Rodney Marsh, appeared in a comical TV commercial for Miller Lite beer (“Look ma, no feet!”) but also got caught up in slight national controversy for comparisons to Pele, the star of the NASL at the time.
Evidence is plentiful on YouTube that the Rowdies drew crowds in the tens of thousands to games at Tampa Stadium, something baseball's Rays should be envious of today. Now professional soccer is attempting a comeback, with matches being fielded in a baseball stadium across Dale Mabry Highway from the Bay area's football powerhouse.
The new FC Tampa Bay Rowdies host their inaugural home game Saturday night versus the Austin Aztex at Steinbrenner Field, where the New York Yankees draw sellout spring training crowds each year. What remains to be seen before the first goal is whether fans and sponsors will respond to the new version as they did in the hey days, when ticket prices were more reasonable and the economy was in better shape.
“I see no reason why it can't be a successful franchise,” says Marsh, who now owns a custom homebuilding firm and has called Tampa home since retiring from soccer in 1979. He is among many former Rowdies whose knowledge has been tapped by the new team, providing continuity over a three-decade gap.
So far since restarting last month, the Rowdies may be considered in breakeven mode, with a record of 1-1-1 — one win, one loss and one tie, all on the road. The tie happened just last weekend, with the Rowdies' match against Miami FC ending in a 1-1 score with roughly 1,500 in attendance.
The old Rowdies drew far bigger crowds, even in the late '70s when they shared the city's home turf with the upstart Buccaneers. Fast forward a couple decades to the days when the Bucs shared Raymond James Stadium with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, a Major League Soccer franchise that averaged crowds above 10,000 from 1996 to 2001.
Ticket prices ranging from $12 to $30 make Rowdies games a relative bargain compared to other local sports teams — including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are offering tickets starting at $35 for games this fall after falling short of sellout crowds last season.
“People still want to go to sporting events,” says Andrew Nestor, lead owner of the new Rowdies, not accepting the recession as an excuse for fan complacency. “Our price points are so much lower than any other professional sport in this market.”
A 27-year-old Boston University graduate, Nestor played soccer in his formative years before launching Citrus Ventures with business partner Hinds Howard, also a Rowdies investor. His passion for the international sport, which hasn't caught on in the United States for various reasons, rivals that of any immigrated fan.
As it turns out, Tampa still has plenty of fans who remember the Rowdies of old, and some of them have become corporate sponsors of the new team. First-year local sponsors include Mainsail Suites Hotel & Conference Center, Florida Orthopaedic Institute, Bayshore Technologies and Pepin Distributing/Anheuser-Busch InBev.
“The response has been really good,” Nestor says, noting that sponsorship levels start at $5,000 and can go as high as $150,000 each season.
Pepin, which distributes Budweiser and related products, will promote the Rowdies in store and bar displays in exchange for being the “official beer” at home games, according to Bill Gieseking, marketing director. “It really gives us an opportunity to market the sports team, as well as our association with the team,” he says, noting that Pepin has sponsor ties to all other professional sports franchises in the Tampa Bay market.
Although the original Rowdies drew crowds topping 20,000, Nestor says he would be happy with a fraction of that attendance, averaging 4,500 to 5,000 per game through the first year. Larger crowds are expected for opening night as well as a Fourth of July home game (also versus Miami), he says, adding that the noise of a sellout crowd at 10,000-seat Steinbrenner Field would be more ideal for players than trying to fill Raymond James Stadium, which is at least six times larger.
Rowdies games will be broadcast on WQYK-AM 1010, though the number of televised games will be limited. This may be a boost for attendance, considering that the Rays attract crowds far below capacity to St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field yet are scoring record ratings on regional cable TV.
Marsh, who will provide color commentary for three Rowdies games planned for telecast on Bright House Sports Network, says connections to the old team should help rebuild the local fan base. “Everybody I have spoken with is incredibly positive about it,” he says.
“This market has an amazing and proud soccer history,” adds Scott Garlick, a former Mutiny goalie turned commercial real estate broker with Cushman & Wakefield in Tampa. He says the new Rowdies group has put together a strong team and has a nice stadium, despite the odd configuration of a rectangular soccer field where a baseball diamond normally fits.
Nestor says the Rowdies are working closely with the Yankees organization to coordinate the dual use of Steinbrenner Field, where the minor-league Tampa Yankees play through spring and summer. Although it creates extra work for maintenance and grounds crews, he believes soccer will work well there and has the blessings of the players, coaches and league.
“We really couldn't have asked for a better venue as far as the quality, the amenities and the perfect size for us,” he says. “The fans are right on top of the field and it creates a cool environment.”
Nestor notes that the Rowdies' goal this first season is not necessarily to break even, but remain cash-flow positive. New NASL franchises are budgeted between $3 million and $8 million annually, depending on the size of the market, and he says the Rowdies are close to the middle of that range.
Most importantly, Nestor wants to be able to attract as many casual soccer fans as die-hards to Rowdies games this year, especially with the World Cup going on in South Africa this summer.
“We want people to have fun,” he says. “It's important that they feel the need to get out to the stadium to see a game.”