by JAKE NUTTING
“Every offseason it’s something.”
Lee Cohen is one of the few people who can say that from firsthand experience when it comes to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Since joining the Rowdies ahead of their first modern era season in 2010, Cohen has been there for every up and down along the way. Now, as Chief Operating Officer, Cohen is guiding the club through another ownership change after Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays acquired the Rowdies from Bill Edwards.
For many the sale was puzzling. Besides the fact that the baseball and soccer seasons overlap and the two would be considered competitors, the lingering perception in market is that Rays ownership may not even be fully committed to keeping its MLB club in Tampa Bay given their protracted stadium search– which is in limbo once again after their Ybor Ballpark proposal fell through in December..
The notion of an MLB club buying a USL club may be surprising to those on the outside, but Cohen seems nothing but encouraged by his time working closely with Rays co-presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld. He’s not concerned about the possibility of the MLB club overshadowing the Rowdies when it comes to attention or resources, or the Rays’ stadium search negatively impacting the Rowdies.
“Maybe that’s because I’m inside of it,” Cohen says. “I see the day-to-day side of things. I see the, I think it’s something they’re very aware of. The very first staff meeting, it was very ‘this is the Rays and this is the Rowdies.’ Now it’s very much Rays-Rowdies. I think that’s what we’ll see more and more of… It just takes time to maybe reeducate everybody in the marketplace as to, it’s not necessarily that the Rays own the Rowdies. It’s the Rays-Rowdies. That’s the way that it will eventually change. But it’s gonna take time. Think about how long it took some people to not call us FC Tampa Bay.”
Silverman and Auld — who now serve as the Rowdies’ vice-chairmen — and virtually the entire Rays organization have been open to Cohen and the Rowdies. According to Cohen, the duo understand that what works for the Rays won’t always work the Rowdies, and they’ve embraced the unique challenge of diving headfirst into a new sport in a market they already have a wealth of experience with.
“It’s exciting for me professionally, because we can learn from them exponentially on how to approach things,” he notes. “They are two presidents of a baseball team. I don’t think there are any other organizations that have two presidents of a major league sports team. That just goes to show you the type of personality both of them have. It’s not about titles. It’s about putting opportunity out there for people to be successful. This is no different for the Rowdies. They want to be able to have a stamp on this too. It’s not just them, though. It’s their director of marketing; it’s their director of ticketing, honestly every single person.
It’s not just ‘Wow, we purchased the Rowdies and that’s more work for all of us.’ It’s ‘Wow, we’ve purchased the Rowdies and this gonna be fun. This is exciting. This is something different that really has a blank sheet of paper in a lot of ways that we can write our own story to.’ These guys see that as a good opportunity.”
The Rowdies are in a far different position compared to when Edwards took over from David Laxer and his group after the 2013 season, when the Rowdies were in serious danger of closing up shop. At the time, Edwards provided what the Rowdies needed most — capital investment. The St. Petersburg mogul invested in the roster on the field, but perhaps more importantly gained control of Al Lang Stadium and invested millions of his own dollars into the neglected venue that is now considered one of the best in lower division soccer.
Despite having zero experience running a sports team, Edwards talked a big game from the start and never shied away from setting ambitious goals. In contrast, the Rays ownership group has a decade of experience running an MLB club and has been quiet so far (to be fair, it’s only be a couple months) about their vision for the Rowdies.
Cohen says these first few months have been about learning. The Rays have been acclimating to how the soccer club and the league operates from the Rowdies staff that has been in place for years, while the Rowdies have been soaking up as much useful information, resources and knowledge from the Rays as possible.
“Just from an on-field perspective, [the Rays] are very innovative. They’re very analytical, and I think that’s something we haven’t been as diligent in in the past,” Cohen admits. “I think their overall approach, even in just connecting with our own staff and even understanding everyone’s expertise, but also maybe they have another knowledge base somewhere else in the organization that they can provide feedback for. It’s really a culture, and honestly it’s really a family-based mindset within departments. It’s not just I’m in the marketing department and I don’t care what you do. It’s I’m in the marketing department and how can I help the operations department. I’m in the operations department and how can I help the sporting department. I think that’s how we’re looking at it.”
The one clear vision in mind so far is the need to nurture the existing fanbase. With the Rays coming in, Cohen and his staff have taken the chance to look in the mirror and assess what’s working and what areas need attention and giving some TLC to loyal supporters is high on the list.
“I think that if you look at what we’ve achieved, we’ve grown at a great percentage, and I think you could also look and say that there’s holes in the fanbase,” he says. “How do we engage to where there’s that full atmosphere inside of here and putting in an environment that turns this into, it’s already a loud stadium, but an even louder environment to where there’s such a demand outside the stadium that we don’t have people lining up outside to buy tickets, they’ve had to buy them ahead of time to get into here. Really focusing on how we get better at the things we weren’t necessarily great at and filling this up on a more consistent basis and letting that manifest itself.”
For all the ways Edwards improved the standing of the Rowdies, it was hard to deny a certain malaise had crept into the fanbase. The club’s bid to join Major League Soccer and increase Al Lang’s seating capacity stopped being mentioned altogether. On top of that the club struggled to find any consistency on the field and ultimately failed to reach the postseason. All this while ticket prices remained among the highest in the league. leaving supporters to question if they were being taken for granted.
The Rowdies have taken the criticism to heart and are looking for a way to reengage with the supporters that have been with the club for years and also hook newcomers by making the Rowdies a preeminent entertainment option in the area. Lowering the entry point with ticket prices will be one way the Rowdies work toward that goal.
“We want to fill the stadium, right? We want people to come in and we want them to feel like this is an opportunity we can showcase our support for the club really feel like it’s a good family opportunity. You don’t want someone to feel like they’re overextending themselves to come to a soccer game. You want them to feel like ‘yeah I got the ticket, but I also want to eat here.’ I have a family of four myself. I think that’s where we’re evaluating and looking at what’s happened in Atlanta. Again, different beast. 70,000 people so their concession prices can be X, but there’s no reason we can’t find somewhere in the middle where, I’m not gonna say weren’t reasonable with what we had with Bill, but it’ll just more in tune to what fans have been saying in the past.”
Somewhere along the way the Rowdies lost sight of what makes them the Rowdies. It became about selling a product rather than an experience, a culture, and a community based around a club with one of the richest histories in American soccer. With new blood in the ownership suite, now is as good a time as any to get back to basics. Fostering stronger bonds with disillusioned fans is as good a worthwhile starting point while the Rays formulate a plan for the longterm future.
At the very least, it’s refreshing to hear someone in the Rowdies front office acknowledge there are issues that need improvement.
“We’ve gotta continue to cultivate the people that have been there from the beginning and appreciate what they’ve done for the organization through good results, through bad results, through different ownership changes, through different coaches, through different staff,” Cohen says. “Because that’s been constant. Ralph’s Mob has been constant through their leadership changes. They’re still there. The fans, the former Rowdies, those have been the constants. It’s how do we take the constants and make them feel they’re just as much a part of this project as myself, or Nico Castillo (Communications Director), or Matt Silverman, Brian Auld, Bill Edwards, David Laxer. Because at the end of the day we don’t do it for ourselves. We do it for the fans, for the people that have a passion about this. We do it for the guys on Reddit that destroy the team after a game so that they have something to destroy. As long as we can take it with a grain of salt, it’s providing people with something to talk about and be passionate about.”
This is part one of our interview with Rowdies COO Lee Cohen. You can read part two on the state of the roster and how the new ownership will impact that process here.
Photo by Patrick Patterson/Unused Substitutes