A month ago the biggest worry for the Tampa Bay Rowdies and many of their supporters was whether or not the city of St. Petersburg would allow them to continue the use of smoke displays at Al Lang Stadium.*
That battle seems so quaint given where we sit now. Just five days after the Rowdies opened the 2020 USL Championship season with a win at New York Red Bulls II the league suspended the season for 30 days as concern over the spread of COVID-19 began to grow. The week after that the suspension was extended to May 10. As we start April, no one has any clearer idea when we might even start to ease back into some form of normalcy. On the day this post was written Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surpassed 200,000 and Governor Ron Desantis issued a stay at home order the entire state of Florida.
Like everyone else, the sudden shut down forced the Rowdies to take quick action. After scrapping their scheduled away trip to play Miami FC, the Rowdies began aggressive social distancing in accordance with guidelines from the CDC. Thanks to a major assist from the Tampa Bay Rays IT department, club staff were able to transition to working from home on short notice not long after the USL suspended play.
A few weeks into the suspension and it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to knowing what the season will look like on the other side of this. 33 games were left to play, not including the postseason that was scheduled to clonclude in November. “A lot of options are on the table” and being discussed at the moment, according to Cohen. The problem is the situation isn’t concrete enough to start narrowing down the options, and it will likely remain that way for a while. Not every state or city is going to react the same way to the outbreak. Some will be hit harder than others and be less likely to relax restrictions on public gatherings. And remember that not every USL club controls the venue they play in the way the Rowdies do. And even if you were able to magically wave a wand to make all this go away tomorrow, you still wouldn’t be able to pick up the season on Saturday considering players have been unable to properly train for nearly a month. All we know for certain is that just missing these past few weeks has drastically changed the outlook for the 2020 season and the longer the dealy goes on the harder it is to believe a full season will be played.
Rowdies players have been doing their best to remain as fit as possible while following proper health protocols. The USL imposed a ban on group training through April 5, but that is expected to be extended imminently. A makeshift gym has been set up at the apartment complex where a majority of the Rowdies roster lives at, and every Sunday the Rowdies send out a training for the players to follow during the week. Cohen noted that since many of the players are roommates, they’re quarantined together in their apartments and are able to help each other out. But it’s remains a difficult and stressful situation regardless. Some of the players from overseas were planning on having their family joining them in Tampa Bay, but that became impossible as the virus closed down most international travel. Cohen credits the group for maintaining a good morale despite the situation and says they’ve put a high priority on maintaining contact with both players and staff to offer as much support as possible.
Keeping fans engaged is also a top concern for the Rowdies. Given the uncertainty on when play might resume, payments for season ticket holders have been put on hold until the path ahead becomes more clear. In the meantime, the Rowdies are using the digital tools at their disposal to reach fans. Rowdies head coach Neill Collins will be hosting a video conference for a group of season ticket holders this week to break down the recent win against NYRB II. Other options are also being explored to keep the connection between the fans and club strong.
As the economic situation worsens during the outbreak, businesses in many sectors of society will be hurting if they aren’t already. So far the Rowdies haven’t had any sponsors pull back. Cohen is hopeful they can use the downtime to put even more focus on getting as many eyes as possible on sponsors as they aim to ramp up their output on social media. Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Blue Cross, Big Storm Brewing, and Visit Tampa Bay have all been featured sponsors in social media posts this week.
The shutdown has also obviously impacted the club’s launch of the Rowdies U23s and Rowdies Women in USL League Two and the Women’s Premier Soccer League. Both of those leagues were set to kick off in May but have now been delayed. This delay is a tough challenge for these particular leagues, as so much of their player pool consists of college players that only have a short window of availability during the summer. For the moment both leagues remain committed to playing some form of a season this year, but a statement this week from USL League Two noted some clubs or even full divisions may decide to forego this year to focus on returning for 2021.
It’s a shame to see these two ventures that were set to add new facets to the organization on hold. Former Rowdies defender and current Chargers SC academy director Andres Arango spent much of the preseason attending Rowdies training sessions, trying to absorb not only Collins’ playing style but also what he demands of his players, so that any player on the U23 squad wouldn’t be behind the curve if they made the jump up to the senior team. The Rowdies’ four USL Academy players were set to see significant minutes with the U23s. Obafemi Awodesu had even impressed so much over the last few months that he came close to being included on the travel squad for season open. It is only a matter of time before the teenager features for the Rowdies in league action, according to Cohen.
The WPSL outfit was also on the cusp of a potentially exciting debut. Former Rowdie Don Tobin was set to lead the amateur side with a “completely local” squad of girls. Cohen says the response to the WPSL announcement has been fantastic so far, and that they’d already lined up a front of the shirt sponsor in Florida Print Solutions. A longtime sponsor of the Rowdies, Florida Print Solutions is a local small business owned and run Danielle Findley. The company’s website proudly notes Florida Print Solustions is a “woman owned small business.”
There’s a lot of big things to be worried about these days, and things might get a lot worse before they get any better. But right now the Rowdies say they remain committed to soving all the obstacles ahead of them in their corner of the world so we all have a club to welcome us back when we get through this.
*Rest easy. The Rowdies tell us everything was on track for the smoke debacle to be resolved before everything shut down. They had a meeting set with the city’s fire marshal the day before the season was shut down and expected the issue to be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes