Monday, June 22, 2009

Soccer Comes to Tampa Bay, 6/19/74

In April 1974, the Tampa Bay area rejoiced over the news that its first professional sports franchise -- a National Football League team -- would start play in time for the 1976 season.

Just two months later, however, the news broke that another professional sport would actually arrive before football. On June 19, 1974, the National American Soccer League (NASL) announced that it would expand to the Tampa Bay area in January 1975.

In a press conference at the Hawaiian Village on Dale Mabry Highway, NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam introduced Tampa to the world's most popular game, describing soccer as "football, black and white spot style."

The league's 16th franchise would be owned by someone from outside the Bay area, Philadelphia businessman George Strawbridge. The vice president of Summit Airlines and a part-owner of hockey's Buffalo Sabres, Strawbridge believed that the Tampa Bay area, as one of the nation's fastest growing communities and the 20th largest television market, was the ideal home for a soccer franchise.

"The climate is great," Strawbridge said. "And Tampa Stadium is positively the most magnificent stadium I have ever seen."

Accompanying Strawbridge to Tampa would be his life-long friend Beau Rogers, who would serve as a minority owner as well as the team's general manager. Rogers, who served in the same capacity with the Philadelphia Atoms in 1973, came with credentials. In the Atom's first season of existence, he brought Philadelphia a NASL championship.

The two personally sought out Woosnam with the idea to bring an expansion franchise to the Tampa Bay area. Once the rental of Tampa Stadium was secured, for the tidy sum of $100,000 ($4.3 million in today's dollars) the two friends had bought themselves a professional soccer franchise.

Woosnam believed that the team would be in excellent hands between Strawbridge and Rogers.

"With owners who are this knowledgeable and experienced in the professional sports field," he said, "we believe that the Tampa Bay area and all of central Florida will be developed into a major soccer market."

Prior to taking the field at Tampa Stadium, however, the franchise still had several orders of business. First off, the team needed a head coach. The search would begin days later at the NASL owner's meeting in St. Louis. With no particular candidates in mind, however, Rogers said finding the best man for the job would be a priority, and that they needed to identify that person "as soon as it's humanly possible."

The next step would be to stock the team with players. Unlike in the NFL, NASL expansion teams were not limited to signing castoffs from other teams. In addition to participating in a college draft, Tampa Bay's soccer club would be able to sign top-flight talent from around the world with few restrictions.

Finally, the franchise needed a name. Strawbridge and Rogers planned on holding a contest later in the year to name the team.

"This is Tampa's team," Rogers said, "and we want the people to name it."

Tampa's first professional sports franchise to take the field came to be known as the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Lead by Head Coach Eddie Firmani and high-scoring forward Derek Smethurst, the Rowdies made their debut in January 1975. The team played their home games, however, at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg during the 10-game indoor portion of the schedule.

By May, the Rowdies had begun the outdoor portion of the season at Tampa Stadium, fielding a competitive and exciting team poised to compete for the league championship.

"We want to bring the first championship team to Tampa," Strawbridge boasted, "and I think it will be easier to do in soccer than in football."

He could not have been more correct. While it would take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 seasons to win a football world title, the Rowdies were able to accomplish that goal in their inaugural season, ultimately defeating the Portland Timbers in Soccer Bowl ’75 to capture the league championship.

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