A West Indian band played, the palm trees rustled just like the Florida brochures promise and the Tampa sunshine did its job to the tune of 78° last Friday as 16 Soviet soccer players—the Zenit team of Leningrad—looked wide-eyed at a buffet of barbecued ribs, corn on the cob and Budweiser in an elegant dining room at Busch Gardens, the brewery's huge recreation and entertainment park. Media types, pretty girls, soccer officials and one baseball notable, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, circulated as the Soviets listened attentively to translations of welcoming speeches. In Tampa for outdoor/indoor matches with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League, the Zenits seemed to be wondering if all this opulence and hospitality was a capitalist plot to psych them out of playing a good game. If that was the case, it didn't work. On Saturday night Zenit won the opening outdoor game 1-0.
The Soviets were right, however, in sensing that what they were seeing was really high-powered capitalism in high gear. The Tampa Bay Rowdies are one of the most financially successful teams in the league—which means they lost less money last year than most of the other 19 franchises—and they have a reputation for front-office savvy. Indeed, they are regarded as one of the slickest little organizations in all of pro sports.
Declared Steinbrenner, pushing away his plate of rib bones, "If anyone asked me how to start and operate any kind of franchise, I'd tell them to study the Rowdies. It is simply the best marketing in sports. From the top on down, it's a group of geniuses that have put it together. They have done the one thing that most teams fail at in all sports—in Tampa, they've made going to the soccer game the thing to do."
The Rowdies won the NASL championship in 1975, their first year, and made it to the semifinals in the playoffs last season. But they do a good deal more than play just fine soccer in their slightly comic, Victorian-looking uniforms of sunshine-yellow and grass-green stripes.
Beau Rogers, 38, an impish-looking man who fancies Gucci loafers and floral-patterned ties, reflects on the Rowdy concept in his dazzling yellow and green office. "Everything flows from our slogan, 'Soccer is a kick in the grass,' " says the co-owner, general manager, vice-president, resident innovator and guiding light of the Rowdies. "Sports should be fun, not a grim mechanism. And there's a kind of naughtiness in the pun, too, but again it's good family fare."
Working closely with an Atlanta-based advertising agency, Rogers has developed a zingy package of Rowdy names and ideas. "Rowdies" itself came out of a public contest. "We wanted the local people in on it," says Rogers. "After all, when we started, Tampa Bay had no professional sports, which is one reason we chose the town, and we wanted to have all the local support we could get. 'Rowdies' had a nice ring to it. Who wants to be named for an animal or a constellation?"
After "Rowdies" came the cheerleaders—"Wowdies"—and the customers, "Fannies." This summer, under Gordon Hill, a popular former English referee who is now director of youth and community development for the team, the Rowdies will open a soccer camp to be called Camp Kikinthagrass.
The Rowdies can also wield a mean media blitz. Last year the slogan was "Pelé Who?" The radio spots for the Soviets' visit, done in a deep, reverberant voice, announced, "In the beginning, the Rowdies created Bedlam [a reference to the, well, rowdy indoor game against the NASL Fort Lauderdale Strikers the previous week] and for five days they rested, and then on the sixth day they created Delirium against the Russians...."
"We got a few phone calls from Baptists about that," says Rogers, "but on the whole I think people loved it." Somebody loves that sort of thing. Last year the Rowdies were fifth in league attendance, averaging crowds of 18,000, and for Zenit they drew an astonishing 41,680 to Tampa Stadium.
Rogers and his team draw and project so well that their NFL neighbors, the Buccaneers, who are suffering at the gate and in the media, have sent people to take lessons from the Rowdies. It might seem odd that a team from the mighty NFL would be showing up on the doorstep of a team in a league that doesn't even have a national television contract, but Beau Rogers thinks he knows the reason why. And the answer, he believes, works for all sports.
"You can do all the promotion you want," he says, "but if you don't cut it on the field, you're dead. A winning team makes any front office look good."
The team itself works as busily promoting Rowdyism as the front office. Various Rowdies appear on the local PBS stations, for instance, doing public-service spots. In one, Alex Pringle, the Scottish defender and the first player the Rowdies signed, is shown being ejected from a game, the referee holding a red card over his head. "You too have to stop on the red," goes the warning about crossing streets. Aside from the usual spate of soccer clinics, speaking engagements and ribbon-cuttings at new auto dealerships—all of which the players undertake with grace and humor, for the Rowdies are marvelously accessible—there are more ambitious projects, such as one in which they took over an eighth-grade class and gave a course on how to operate a sports franchise.
If all this sounds like a cross between a successful Junior Achievement Company, a Dale Carnegie course and paradise, nothing is perfect, not even the Rowdies. Even though Coach Eddie Firmani scouts the English league for players that fit the Rogers mold—those who have a flair and are willing to sign contracts that call for off-season promotional and educational work ("our Fannies love to hear those English accents")—it is interesting to note what happens to players who occasionally choose to break the mold.
Last season, Stewart Scullion and Clyde Best, a Scot and a Bermudian respectively, groused and fomented a good deal of trouble because they wanted to be paid on the English system—bonuses for wins, more money for winning away, much more for playoffs, etc. Superstar Rodney Marsh gave up his team captaincy rather than get involved in the fray. The result was that neither Scullion nor Best, both of whom had been important to the team in a statistical sense, was signed this year.
Derek Smethurst, 29, a South African-born forward who bounced around the English second and third divisions before landing with the Rowdies three years ago, does fit, although he has reservations. "This is a whole new life in soccer for me," he says, "and I'm happy for the chance. I think sometimes we maybe do too much promotion and appearances. Sometimes I wish we weren't quite so accessible."
But whatever else they do, the Rowdies put on a good show. After treating the Soviet team to bags of oranges, free Levi's—a must for visiting Iron Curtain players—plus a barbecue at the home of television actor Robert Conrad, Beau Rogers Productions saved its best show for Saturday night's game.
Before the near-capacity crowd, on a humid evening, the smiling Wowdies presented each Zenit player with a bouquet of yellow and green roses and a kiss, and each Rowdy handed his Soviet counterpart a small statuette of a soccer player, a Rowdy promotional item called Stoney Maloneys.
On the field, however, the Rowdies were outclassed—though barely—by the innovative Soviets. Playing exactly the same style as the Rowdies—hard-charging, short passing, tenacious at midfield—the Zenit side confused the locals, whose intelligence had led them to expect a dour, mechanical, team-play game from the Zenits.
Although Arsene Auguste. 26, a Haitian defender, did a remarkable job of marking the Soviet first-division goal-scoring leader Alexander Markin, he couldn't keep him from setting up the only goal of the game. Charging in, Markin got off a hard head shot that rebounded from the crossbar. He headed the ball again to Forward Viacheslav Melnikov, who was lurking by the corner of the goal mouth, and Melnikov put a low, dribbling shot into the corner of the net, past Rowdy Keeper Paul Hammond, 13:44 into the second half for the only goal of the game.
By NASL standards, the Rowdies played as well as the Soviets, the fifth-ranked team in the soccer-mad U.S.S.R. It was a "fun" night, as Rogers would put it, and also first-rate soccer—exactly the combination that has made the Rowdies' operation a success.
Gordon Hill has only one big worry. "I hope that when soccer becomes a major sport here like football." he says, "and Rowdies are up there at the top, that we don't forget all our marketing and education programs and most of all our fans. I want to be accessible."
Each Russian received a statuette, a bouquet and a warm Wowdy welcome.