If you weren’t already aware, Fox Sports’ lead studio host for pretty much any soccer event it has aired the past few years, Rob Stone spent the early part of his career in Tampa Bay as a local anchor. He was even the TV analyst for the Tampa Bay Mutiny’s first two seasons before moving on to bigger and better things at ESPN. But more importantly, like us, he has a love for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. That love, however, stretches back to a time before Stone ever came to the Bay Area. Stone was kind enough to give the Unused Substitutes an interview on the morning before the MLS kicks off its 20th season. Photo via Fox Sports
First things first. I don’t want to put words in your mouth because I know some TV broadcasters are hesitant to express their fandom, so I’ll ask is it safe to call you a fan of the Rowdies?
Oh yeah, I’m absolutely a fan of the Rowdies. And you’re right, I think most people in my business do hide their fandom, and I try to limit mine as well. But I’ve been a fan of the Rowdies I feel like since 4th grade or 5th grade. Rodney Marsh was my hero. I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and on my papers I’d write Rodney Stone instead of Rob Stone. My teachers had to call in my parents to try to understand what was going on with this Rodney character. I even had the poster of the “Clown Prince” up in my bedroom, and when you have a passion that started that early it’s absolutely impossible to get rid of it. So yes, I absolutely cheer for the Rowdies. But frankly, I want to see all American soccer teams succeed.
That’s great. I’m really hoping that you’re fandom has led to some trash talk between you and Eric Wynalda on Rowdies-Silverbacks game days.
(Laughs) Sure, we have in a way. When Eric was part of the Atlanta franchise the Rowdies won the NASL championship and I had the scarf out the next morning, and he was prepared to hear it. So it is there. But again, I want to see everyone succeed, maybe the Rowdies just a little bit more.
So then as a fan how are you feeling after seeing all the changes since the new ownership came in? It seems to have really to picked up this offseason in particular.
Yeah, you know obviously I have some distance from the club now compared to three and a half years ago. But I’ve known and still know Farrukh Quraishi and Thomas Rongen very well, and I have great faith in their talent and their decision-making. So that alone keeps me close to the Rowdies family. I’m glad the colors are still there and true. Everything that I’ve read and witnessed from the new ownership, and that includes notes from my friends back in Tampa, has been immensely popular. I cannot wait to get to Al Lang for the season opener and see the renovations, and also the new look of this club.
You mentioned that you’ve known Thomas Rongen for a while. What can fans expect in terms of personality on and off the field? They’ve gotten a taste from social media and it certainly appears that he exudes a ton of energy.
He does. He’s always got a great smile, a quick wit, and undeniable passion for the sport and obviously for the area as well. Which I think is very important. It’s always a bonus when you have someone that has a personal investment in the area he’s representing. I first got to know Thomas when he was head coach of the Mutiny and I still remember my first real meeting with him right after the inaugural MLS draft, and of course he went on that year to lead them to the best regular season and also won Coach of the Year. He really wanted to build his team through the spine. He wanted to be strong up the middle from the net to all the way up top. He was gifted Valderrama, but he was really smart about what he built around Carlos Valderrama. You’re gonna see a guy who doesn’t like to lose but isn’t afraid to win, which is something I think soccer fans understand. He’s not just gonna sit back and hope for a counterattack. He wants to play pretty soccer, and he loves to attack as well. I have no reason to believe he’s not going to have wonderful success in his first year back in Tampa Bay.
You were the broadcaster for the local Mutiny TV broadcasts those first two years. What do you remember about the mood or atmosphere of the sports market in general, and also the appetite for pro soccer back then?
It was mediocre. Just because, as you know, in Tampa Bay there are just so many things pulling at you. The Buccaneers were struggling. The Rays were not around. The market was just a lot smaller then. What I really remember was people still remembering the Rowdies. There were still plenty of old Rowdies fans. For the Mutiny a lot of the kids and parents were coming out to games. I think that franchise would have done so much better if it wasn’t the Mutiny and it was the Rowdies from day one. I think it would have pulled in thousands more. I think it would have given them a push towards credibility in the marketplace, and maybe even nationwide for the league as a whole.They had their moments and they had great success early on, and they had a passionate fan base. But in the end, when you got there and you saw thousands of empty seats the perception was that this club isn’t succeeding and I really think that’s unfair.
I’m so glad that professional soccer has come back to the Bay Area and it’s doing well because it’s still an area I believe in. I know that there are a lot of doubters out there, but I think the Rowdies have gone a long way to improve the perception. Both the Rowdies and Orlando have. I know it’s difficult to talk about Orlando City and the Rowdies in the same breath, and I get it, but I want to see Orlando do well because I want the league to do well, and I want to see Florida do well. There’s so much push to get that team in Miami, and I understand why, but I think if the Rowdies continue to have success like they are, then if it is a goal for the owner, at some point MLS has to recognize what’s going on in the Bay Area and may need to rethink their Southeast plans.
To some extent the NASL is dealing with the perception problem of being labeled as minor league soccer. Minor league sports are a tough sell in any market. So do you think the Rowdies can gain the necessary fan base to survive and flourish while in NASL?
I do. I really do. I think there’s local built-in local affinity for the colors and tradition. I love the fact that its local ownership, and everything that Bill has been putting into the team. And the venue is so much better then when the Rowdies first started playing up at Legends Field. That place lacked any kind of warmth or atmosphere, and really they were treated like second class citizens there. At Al Lang you are wanted, you are loved, and you are embraced. On top of that, they’re making it even more fan friendly with all these renovations. I think everything being done has been in a positive step to improve this club and its image, which is huge. I’m a big image guy, and the image the Rowdies have is first class. You know the know the name. You know the colors right off the bat. And now you’re seeing names, recognizable names, whether it be players, coaches, general manager, or ownership come aboard. The crowd continues to grow every year. Everything about this club to me is really positive.
And this all helps the NASL as it tries to kind of locate where it falls in the American soccer landscape. I don’t know where that is. Is this country big enough for two pro first division? My first inclination would be no. But can they work together? Absolutely. What NASL has done right now, despite not being the ‘first division’ is really remarkable. How they’ve grown and found new franchises, and even producing talent that makes it to the US National team is really remarkable.
TV revenue is obviously a huge factor in the sustainability and status of any league. Do you see the NASL being able to secure some kind of national TV deal in the near future? It’d likely be a tough sell considering its current status.
You know there’s so much TV out there. How long does it take you to roll through your entire channel selections? So there’s an outlet out there. Somebody, somewhere will want the NASL. It just depends on if the league wants to be on that outlet. There’s almost an infinite amount of outlets to put your product on, and television stations seeking live programming. It’s massively important at the moment. But it’s gonna be a tough sell, I’m not gonna lie. Would I watch? Absolutely, but I may be in the minority. Obviously MLS has had major issues with their TV ratings. So I think it would be a big, bold step for somebody to slide in and say ‘Let’s get this on TV on help push this product.’ It would take some brave leadership to make that happen. But I do believe there are people out there who have that ability, have that want and desire for the league and the game.
So this one may be a little selfish but I think there are likely NASL people who’d like to hear an answer. There’s a bunch of fan generated coverage of the league, through blogs or podcasts. It’s really a necessity because of the lack of mainstream coverage. For lack of a better word, what advice would you give those fans providing coverage?
Number one they’re fightin’ the good fight. And we all appreciate it. The landscape has changed so much since MLS’ first season 20 years ago to where it is now. I think there’s a place out there for everybody, and to spread that gospel requires special people. Special people have stepped up and helped MLS succeed and stick around for 20 years. They’ve stepped up and supported the National teams, men and women, and elevated their status in this country. There’s no reason to think people can’t step up and do that to push a wonderful product like the NASL, which has great names, recognition, and value into the spotlight while tries to grow. It’s not an easy fight. There are those that have dug in and taken shell fire over the last couple decades. They’re just now able to get out of their bunkers and storm more cities and take over more states and wave that American soccer flag proudly regardless of the league. It’s coming. We’re at a tipping point. It’s a great time to be a fan, to be the ones pushing the sport ahead in the United States. You’re no longer being pushed around. You’re the one out there pushing in favor of the sport and who’s able, with your voices, to sway the people who have the deep pockets.