We need to talk about our neighbors to the west. I’ve been thinking about the Tampa Bay Rowdies a lot since the resumption of the I-4 Derby last week. With the Rowdies moving into the USL and notching their first win against Orlando City (albeit, OCB), it looks like the match-up will be adding some new chapters and intensity in the coming years. With Tampa looking to make the jump to MLS with the club’s official bid for expansion, the I-4 Derby could soon become part of the league's supporter culture as well.
Those of us in Orlando all have our opinions about the Tampa Bay Rowdies being added to the MLS ranks. I decided to put my own personal prejudices on a shelf and see if I could make a case for the Tampa Bay Rowdies being an MLS club.
Let’s be really open about their one fatal flaw right now, attendance. Last season, the Rowdies averaged 5,878. That was good for third best in the NASL, but nothing compared to USL clubs in Cincinnati and Sacramento, who also have expansion bids. These 2016 numbers may or may not be affected by all the challenges that are part of the NASL. Like all expansion bids, their attendance number will be scrutinized during this USL season. The sellout against Orlando City was a good start.
That sellout and the short but intense history between the Rowdies and the Lions are a useful transition here, because Orlando City plays a role in Tampa’s MLS bid. Don Garber and the league’s front office have a formula, and it involves regional rivalries and historic match-ups. It has been no secret that MLS has highlighted the Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle Cascadian rivalry as all that is best about the league. The league also loves the historic sports rivalries in the northeast between Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. They hype the “California Clasico” between San Jose and LA Galaxy and they tried with the now defunct “Super Clasico” between Chivas USA and LA Galaxy.
As if to punctuate the obsession MLS has with regional rivalries, the league has shoehorned additional teams into both New York and Los Angeles, despite the fact that the New York Red Bulls have never been overly impressive with attendance numbers, and Chivas USA almost proved LA doesn’t need a second team.
All of that can lead the Tampa Bay Rowdies to conclude the league might be more obsessed with crafting a southeastern rivalry between them and Orlando, with Atlanta adding to the mix.
I think the second intangible the Tampa Bay Rowdies have going for them is brand endurance. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the name or the gaudy green and yellow combination. That said, full credit to them for keeping the brand alive through the roller coaster that is American soccer history since the first NASL folded. There was a club with the Rowdies brand beginning in 1975 and lasting until 1993, and rebooted in 2010.
A Rowdies team has played in seven different soccer leagues (NASL, NASL Indoor, AISA, ASL, APSL, new NASL, and now, the USL) and survived as an “independent club” at times. While some clubs have sought to create new brands for expansion clubs (Atlanta and NYCFC, I’m looking at you), the clubs with historic names have done really well. The Cascadian clubs and San Jose Earthquakes have all done well under historic monikers. In a poll to find a name for their expansion bid, the San Diego Surf is running second only to “Footy McFooty Face.”
Historic brands have potential in the modern soccer marketplace. They provide an authenticity that the league desperately needs as it competes for dollars and viewership with European leagues.
Could it be as simple as that for the Tampa Bay Rowdies? Play up the rivalry with Orlando City and keep being the Rowdies? I think so. Their attendance numbers and wacky half-stadium plan should concern anyone voting on a Rowdies bid. The depth of their owner’s pockets to fully fund an MLS bid should be a part of any discussion. But, with a downtown stadium site already there in St. Petersburg and a massive television market, the Rowdies can make a strong bid. At the end of the day, it might be the two intangibles of their rivalry with Orlando City and brand endurance that make the best arguments for the club’s place within Major League Soccer’s soon-to-be 28 teams.