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Rowdies’ Cohen Thrilled by Region’s ‘Rabid Fanbase’

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 07/07/17, 12:19PM EDT


Tampa Bay's VP & Chief Operating Officer excited for Gold Cup’s first visit to area since 2011

Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Having been present from the time the Tampa Bay Rowdies kicked off their inaugural season in 2010, there are few who have seen the resurgence of soccer in Tampa Bay from the perspective of Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lee Cohen.

As the CONCACAF Gold Cup returns to Tampa Bay for the first time since 2011 when the United States faces Martinique, and Panama squares off with Nicaragua at Raymond James Stadium on Wednesday, the difference is almost night and day.

“It’s funny, we had the Sneaker Soiree that we went to just recently. I said to someone this is absolutely amazing to see the transformation of what in 2009 and 2010, people wrote it off as an afterthought from a soccer town, soccer community to where it is now,” Cohen said. “We have a rabid fanbase that’s just passionate about the sport and a community that’s grown behind it from the youth side – where the numbers are continuing to grow and grow and grow – to a viewership standpoint getting behind not just the Rowdies, but the sport in general. It’s really fun to go out and watch, but also be a part of on a day-to-day basis.”

Joining the USL ahead of the 2017 season, the Rowdies have quickly become one of the league’s marquee attractions with the likes of former England international Joe Cole and German international Marcel Schäfer in their ranks. The club sits third in the Eastern Conference after Thursday night’s 2-0 victory against FC Cincinnati, a game that drew more than 6,000 fans to Al Lang Stadium, and got national attention through its broadcast on ESPNU.

The levels of support for the club have steadily grown since that inaugural season, not only in the stands, but in local media too. The team’s home games are all broadcast locally, and the visibility the team has gained locally since the club’s purchase by local businessman Bill Edwards has pushed the club to new heights.

Add in the overall growth in visibility of the sport overall and the support the team and sport overall has received from the Tampa Bay Sports Commission – which was key to the Gold Cup’s return to the region – and the Rowdies have become a firm regional fixture. Cohen hopes that will be reflected when the Gold Cup arrives.

“I remember when we had it [in 2011], and the fanbase wasn’t where it is today, so it’s going to be exciting to see how far it’s come since that time period,” he said. “I think it’s something where we’re going to prove to a lot of people that this market is a great market for a midweek game, and having the U.S. Men’s National Team here at 9 o’clock at night, we’re going to show our support for them both from a club side, but also as a region that will get behind this.”

Justin Morrow, part of the 2017 Gold Cup squad for the United States, competed for Tampa Bay in 2010 and 2011. / File photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies

There will also be a connection to those early years for the Rowdies on the field with current Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow, a former player for the club. Morrow joined the Rowdies on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes at the start of his professional career in 2010 and 2011. Since then he has gone on to flourish in the top flight with 180 MLS regular-season appearances and an MLS All-Star selection to his name, while also helping TFC claim the MLS Eastern Conference championship a season ago and back-to-back Canadian Championships over the past two years.

“It’s exciting for us,” said Cohen. “Anytime you have a player – past, present or future – that you know is going to be representing their country, and you look up and see they represented the Tampa Bay Rowdies on the national team for the U.S. and abroad, it’s great for us to see that we have roots in this competition both domestically and internationally, because it shows that we’re finding those players and have maybe had an impact on their career.”

The Rowdies also have a current representative competing at this year’s tournament, with Jamaican center back Damion Lowe among four players from the USL named in the Reggae Boyz’s squad for the event. Having those local connections, like those for Charleston Battery fans with Romario Williams, or Reno 1868 FC fans with Junior Burgos and El Salvador, or Louisville City FC fans with Mark-Anthony Kaye and Canada, brings another great connection to the game, and will help increase fan engagement with the tournament overall.

“You may not be rooting for the Jamaican national team on a daily basis, because the U.S. Men’s National Team is your team, but I can guarantee Rowdies fans will be watching those games, Battery fans will be watching those games, and that’s the real difference I can take from the 2012, 2013 time period to now,” said Cohen. “You not only have U.S. Men’s National Team players that will be representing the country, but you have international players and Rowdies fans and other fans will just be able to get behind those teams and root for those players that are representing those teams, which is extremely cool.”

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