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Things are pretty good for Tampa Bay Rowdies supporters right now.
They’ve outlived leagues, opponents and owners. Their relationship with the front office has morphed from once aggressively litigious to warm, even collaborative, and on the field, the team is a USL Championship powerhouse.
In an American soccer landscape where change, rebirth, transition, collapse and upheaval are the most common states of being, Rowdies fans have something precious, stability, and they’re making the most of it.
“This is a rare thing in American soccer these days where you've got a lower level team like this, playing in a beautiful location like this, with the kind of heritage name and brand that still gets a lot of recognition,” said Matt Cox, Rowdies fan and co-founder of the Unused Substitutes podcast.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies are one of the most historically well-known clubs in the United States. Its history stretches back to 1975 as a member of the North American Soccer League. They boasted European stars like Rodney Marsh, won the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1975 and were perennial playoff contenders. Even after the NASL folded in 1984, the Rowdies hopped to various independent leagues until they folded in 1993.
In 2010, the Rowdies were reincarnated. They played the 2010 and 2011 seasons as FC Tampa Bay, due to some legal roadblocks around the Rowdies name, but by 2012 the Tampa Bay Rowdies were back, sporting the same colors, name and crest.
Ralph’s Mob, one of two official Rowdies supporters groups, along with Skyway Casuals, was founded in 2010, its name a nod to the club’s original mascot, Ralph Rowdie (who has re-emerged thanks to a recent crest rebrand.)
“We just want to promote all things green and gold in the Tampa Bay. Being the area’s oldest professional team and first national champion, we want to be the voice of the Rowdies and be the supporters of the team,” said Aron Retkes, Chief Executive Office of Ralph’s Mob.
The importance of having a deep history, for both Ralph’s Mob and the Rowdies, is not lost on Retkes.
“We do have that kind of sense of history within the supporters group itself, being that we’ve been around longer than some teams have,” Retkes said. “We straddled leagues and team iterations. We know that just because of the fact that the actual Rowdies name has been such a famous American soccer name, us by association are one of the most recognizable supporters groups in this genre.”
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Over the years, as the club changed hands and different ownership regimes took charge, Ralph’s Mob clashed with the front office, to the point that they entered litigation over copyright claims.
“We, as a supporters group, have been through an ocean of emotion with the team that we support,” said Retkes. “We’ve had good relationships, we’ve had really bad relationships. There were times in the past where we were completely at odds with the team and on the verge of disbanding.”
The Tampa Bay Rays bought the club in 2018, a move that has helped heal several wounds between club and supporters.
“It’s one of those things, we’re always a little nervous about it now,” said Cox. “When the team was sold to Bill Edwards [in 2013], it turned out the team was borderline insolvent and hadn’t paid their players in a month or so, all of this stuff that we had never heard before because no one had been speaking about it. But right now, relations with the front office are really good. There’s always that level of, something could happen, anything could happen, but everything been has pretty good the last few years.”
That positive relationship was reflected when the club presented Ralph’s Mob and Skyway Casuals with Eastern Conference Championship rings at the start of this season, an acknowledgement that the supporters are a key part of the club’s journey.
“It’s always a struggle to draw the boundary of where the limit is of remaining as an independent supporters group and still be on good terms with the team,” said Retkes. “Basically when the Rays took over the team, we had a nice big round table talk with all of the Rays, the Rowdies, and it came down to brass tacks. We came to the agreement that you don’t tell us how to run our supporters group, and we won’t tell you how to run the team, and that seems to be holding up for the most part. So, the space that we are in now with the team is the best that it’s ever been. So, to get a token of appreciation like that just really blew us away.”
For a supporters group, when you don’t have to grapple with the ‘Will we even have a team next year?’ level of dread, you can focus on the important parts, like actually supporting the club and growing the fan base. With a waterfront stadium, postcard quality views, and a lively pregame setup, it’s not a hard sell for new supporters.
“There’s definitely a bit of fanfare on a normal game day,” Retkes said. “The stadium is located in a fantastic spot, within striking distance of all sorts of entertainment and bars and restaurants.”
“We always joke about how it’s always like, ‘Oh, you have to have a downtown waterfront stadium’ and we’re the only team that’s found a way to do that, at any level in Florida,” said Cox.
“Our official home pub is at Courigans, which is directly across the street,” said Retkes. “We also have a large tailgate presence. Skyway Casuals’ official tailgate usually has some sort of special menu that they’re grilling and cooking every game, so there’s all sorts of cool stuff coming from there. [Inside the stadium] we like to have a good time, we like to pack it out, make a lot of noise, make a lot of smoke and just see how much we can get away with.”
“We definitely try to lean towards original chants,” Retkes continued. “The unique aspect of the way that we support is that we are primarily a chant group. So I play the drum essentially myself, or sometimes there’s a backup snare. We don’t have a wall of sound with 20 people on the drums. Basically I just play in the pocket, keep the rhythm and we focus on the chants and the actual human voices in the stadium.”
“It’s definitely not the European experience,” said Cox. “I’d say it’s an Americanized take on it, which I like. We’ve taken this game and these traditions, on and off the pitch, and put our own twist on them.”
The Rowdies are 4-0-0 and sit atop the Atlantic Division of the USL Championship. They’ve racked up electrifying wins over Phoenix Rising and rivals Miami FC, and when they take the field for their next home match, on June 11th, Al Lang Stadium will be open for full capacity, another huge boost for a club and its supporters who are happy to enjoy the moment.
“Over the next few years I’d like us to remain consistent but still grow organically, which is, I think what has gotten us to this point so far,” Cox said. “I remember going to games where there were 2000 people at Al Lang, and we were like, ‘Man this is great!’ Now, we’ve got giant tifos on pulleys, smoke bombs and supporters groups getting rings from the team. It’s ok to go slow and do this organically, because we’re having a great time doing it. That’s kind of the most important thing.”