Why the Rowdies rule

National champs, rabid fans, a waterfront stadium — what’s not to like?

click to enlarge WEARING THE COLORS: Waving the green and gold during a game at St. Pete’s Al Lang Stadium. - Courtesy The Rowdies
Courtesy The Rowdies
WEARING THE COLORS: Waving the green and gold during a game at St. Pete’s Al Lang Stadium.

Each Saturday, beginning late in March and lasting midway through the American football season, a mob dressed in green and gold gathers at an Irish pub in St. Petersburg.

The first member begins trickling into Crowley’s Downtown Grill & Pub sometime around 2 p.m.

Within the hour, a mix of doctors, lawyers, teachers, IT professionals and firefighters have abandoned their daytime personae to create Ralph’s Mob, a happy-go-lucky group passionate for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The journey resumes again this Saturday, the final game of the pre-season, when the Tampa Bay Rowdies meet Orlando City at St. Pete’s waterfront Al Lang Stadium in “The I-4 Derby.” (The regular season begins April 6 against the Carolina Railhawks.)

But the Rowdies don’t need to beat Mickey’s team to prove their mettle. They already have the biggest prize of all: the 2012 North American Soccer League (NASL) championship, won in front of a sell-out crowd at Al Lang. Unlike another local team whose name begins with R, the Rowdies revived a moribund baseball stadium in St. Pete — and they moved out of Tampa to do it.

Credit their success to Ralph and his Mob — Ralph being the Rowdies mascot, a cartoonish muscular figure dressed in soccer gear and sporting a handlebar mustache — and to the canny business model of a young sports fan and entrepreneur from Boston named Andrew Nestor.

The Rowdies have a storied history in Tampa Bay, having competed in the original North American Soccer League from 1975 to 1984 and playing their games at Tampa Stadium. It was Nestor who figured out in 2008 that the time was right for the team’s rebirth.

Nestor, 30, played hockey and soccer in high school before attending Boston University, where he majored in finance. After cutting his teeth in the business sector of New York, he would eventually team up with college friend Hinds Howard to create the Citrus Sports Group. He traveled to cities around the country before settling on Tampa as the right spot for a soccer franchise.

“Tampa won out because it had a colorful history with the NASL with some impressive players and a tradition that fans could associate with,” Nestor said. “Plus, I knew I would be moving to the location, and the Tampa Bay area is a great place to live.”

On the way to creating the current state of the Rowdies, he has had to navigate a number of speed bumps, including a lost bidding war with Nike, a lawsuit over the trademarked name, and a loss of fans due to the move from Steinbrenner Field on Dale Mabry Highway to St. Pete.

“The relationship with the Yankees was great, but we were stuck to weekday games due to the minor league schedule,” Nestor said. “Being at Al Lang allows us to create a soccer-specific stadium that fans can appreciate.”

Nestor used his business savvy to build a championship team comprised of veterans and youth. Several players from last year’s club have moved on to top-level professional teams, particularly midfielder Tsuyoshi Yoshitake and goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, but a core of returnees give coach Ricky Hill confidence in attaining a repeat title.

“I am the captain of the ship and it is my mission to guide them the best way possible,” said Hill, an Englishman who played for in the English Premier League for 15 years before spending one season with the original Rowdies team. “We will have a target on our back because of our success last year, but we have a group capable of being the first to win back-to-back championships in the NASL.”

Ralph’s Mob expects nothing less.

“We love the Rowdies, we do, we love the Rowdies we do, we love the Rowdies, we do, ohhh, Rowdies, we love you,” chants the throng at Crowley’s.

Modeled after European fan groups, Ralph’s Mob doubled in size last year, growing from 100 paying members to 215. Crowley’s Downtown Grill & Pub has proven to be an ideal base.

“We needed a place to call home,” said Ralph’s Mob president, Charlie Cole, 32. “When the team played in Tampa, we had to do the typical tailgate party for pre-game on the field next to Raymond James Stadium. … It didn’t have that typical soccer feeling where you traditionally gather at a nearby pub and all walk together to the game.”

Crowley’s has embraced the group, hanging soccer scarves from the bar and along the hallway.

“If you don’t know a thing about soccer, they essentially are an open-arm group that will talk to you step by step through the process,” said Dave Griffin, Crowley’s bar manager.

Dressed head to toe in the Rowdies’ team colors of green and gold, with a color-coordinated Mohawk and beard here and there, the mob marches down Central Avenue to Al Lang on game days. There, the chants become boisterous and stay that way for 90 minutes of action, led by Cole banging a bass drum.

“We’ve gone through two used, beat-up ones, and we finally will have a spanking brand new one, thanks to a generous donation by an anonymous fan,” Cole said.

Nestor says the Mob is a key element in the team’s success.

“Soccer is a niche sport,” he says, “one that has a different type of subculture than any other sport. You might guess we’re an indie rock band in the way we connect with fans.”

As the 2013 campaign begins, he envisions the team connecting even more.

“At the end of the day, fans want to be entertained and they want to be a part of a winner,” Nestor said. “Having that niche community to lean on gives us that quality foundation to build on.”

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