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 "Pel� 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.