ST. PETERSBURG — The city might not make as much fuss about soccer stadiums as it does baseball facilities, but fans of the Tampa Bay Rowdies are becoming a bigger — and louder — presence every year.
The team’s band of loyal followers, “Ralph’s Mob,” marches along downtown streets on its way to every home game at Al Lang Stadium, chanting victory songs and puzzling some people who still might not know St. Petersburg has a professional soccer team.
They get together to create giant-size banners to spur their players to a win and taunt the enemy — in a nonviolent way, of course, says Jason Bruzzichesi, one of the mob’s leaders.
They’ve grown and become more organized in the four years since the club was resurrected in 2010, with 150 devoted members this year, and Saturday night’s opening game against FC Edmonson was sold out with nearly 8,000 seats accounted for, he said.
The team’s new principal owner, businessman Bill Edwards, has promised a better fan experience at the stadium, which Rowdies management recently complained was poorly maintained by the city.
Bruzzichesi believes Edwards’ assurances. He can see the second-division club reaching big-league status in the not-too-distant future, transforming the repurposed baseball field at Al Lang into a proper soccer stadium.
Although the Rowdies and their home field might appear small in the shadow of Tropicana Field, its fans make their presence known in St. Petersburg every time there’s a game in town, filling bars with people wearing green and gold and adding to the already bustling downtown vibe.
“It’s catching momentum,” said Bruzzichesi, who on Saturday handed out green mob shirts and scarves to members at MacDinton’s Irish Pub downtown before the game.
“The biggest thing that sells people on it is they show up at one game and they hear these ridiculous morons over there chanting and screaming and going nuts and throwing confetti and smoke bombs and just having a blast.”
Although attendance generally remains far below the tens of thousands that used to show up at games in Tampa during the Rowdies former life — a 20-year run that ended in 1993 — the team averaged about 4,000 people per game last year, up from just over 3,000 in 2012.
For Edwards, investing in the team that was resurrected in Tampa Bay after a 17-year hiatus fits a pattern. His development company nearly has completed a multimillion-dollar project to bring the failed BayWalk retail center back to life, refashioned as the Sundial.
He has put $500,000 into the team, adding 1,100 new premium seats, including VIP spots just behind the coaches and expanding the fan base with TV broadcasts of the games on WTTA Great 38.
“Once you get on TV, people start to recognize it and then they’ll see the great atmosphere at every game and then they’ll want to go,” said Nico Castillo, a team spokesman.
Of course the fan base for soccer still lags behind that for other pro sports represented in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere in the United States.
But the North American Soccer League has seen steady attendance growth in the past few years in major cities such as New York and Atlanta.
Soccer also seems a good fit for a city seeking to be perceived as an international destination, with sporting events that fall outside the mainstream, such as the Firestone Grand Prix IndyCar street race.
Hosting Rowdies games week after week brings added energy downtown as fans congregate at their favorite watering holes and create a spectacle while moving in a throng toward the stadium, shouting and waving flags.
“The energy of the crowd tends to be the energy found surrounding the field,” said Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, in an email.
The Rowdies vibe contributes to downtown’s reputation as a hip place to live and do business, he added.
“It’s a great calling card to support the new brand of St. Pete,” he wrote.
Should that energy continue to build, and attendance along with it, Bruzzichesi could see the stadium being remodeled as a full-time soccer field, with the 20,000 or more seats required before the team can qualify for the upper division.
“St. Pete deserves a Major League Soccer team,” he said.