Tampa didn't make it as an MLS market, but back in the day it was as big or bigger than NASL markets such as Seattle or Portland that have become huge hits in MLS. A lot of the credit goes to the the former Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen, who died Sunday at the age of 88. When soccer-bashing was the rule rather than the exception, McEwen was influential as one of the first members of the sports media establishment to support soccer.
McEwen is best known for support of the NFL Buccaneers, who played their first season in 1976, but a year earlier Tampa welcomed the Rowdies. All they did in their first season was win the Soccer Bowl, the NASL's championship game.
The Rowdies could have been buried by the Buccaneers, but they took off in Tampa, thanks to their carefree attitude.
"The Rowdies are a kick in the grass" was their motto, and it stuck.
They stood out with their green and gold uniforms and charismatic players like Rodney Marsh, dubbed the "Clown Prince."
Until the late 1970s, before cable television and the Internet, the sports editors of local newspapers wielded considerable count. They not only covered the story, they were often part of the story.
McEwen was one of the giants, legendary for his friendship with players and owners alike.
Ted Williams hated sportswriters but he liked McEwen.
McEwen once gave then-San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo access to his hotel room so he could secretly sign Bill Walsh to coach his NFL team.
Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once quipped, "Tom has been more important to Tampa than cigars."
McEwen not only helped bring soccer and pro football to Tampa, he helped bring MLB and the NHL to Florida's West Coast.
The NFL, MLB and the NHL would have thrived whether or not they ever stopped in Tampa, but soccer's early success in Tampa was essential to the (fleeting) success the NASL enjoyed.
Today, few sports editors at major papers have the time to write, but in his day, McEwen cranked out six columns a week and a letters-to-the-editor column on Sunday.
His coverage of the Rowdies in his "The Morning After" column gave them legitimacy when legitimacy was everything for soccer.
And for that, soccer fans in Tampa and elsewhere owe Tom McEwen a tip of the hat.