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Rowdies fans cheered, they sang, they partied ... all 140 of ‘em

By John Romano - Tampa Bay Times , 07/13/20, 4:00PM EDT

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Live sports with an audience made a return in Tampa Bay on Saturday night with a very controlled environment at a Rowdies game.

ST. PETERSBURG — Game time is just 48 minutes away, and the fan entrance at Al Lang Stadium is empty. Except for the two cops. And the eight security guards.

Not to mention the two St. Anthony’s health care workers operating the temperature-screening devices, two fan hosts, a pair of team executives and nine signs reminding the still-missing spectators to stay spread apart.

Is this overkill? Could be. Or maybe it’s the future you never expected or asked for.

The Tampa Bay Rowdies ushered in the era of live sporting events in Florida in the age of the coronavirus on Saturday evening with a 2-1 victory against Atlanta United 2 that felt mostly triumphant but also a little melancholy.

A high-end restaurant might call this a soft opening. A stadium that holds roughly 7,200 fans that was limited to 140 invitation-only spectators on opening night.

The safety protocols for the United Soccer League Championship match were extensive but not stifling for the fans allowed in. And the sense that this was a test case for more ambitious nights farther down the road was obvious.

“We’re the first team in the state of Florida that has anybody inside their own stadium,” Rowdies president Lee Cohen said. “The guys view this as a chance to write history for a lower-division soccer team in this country. This is a chance to showcase something and be a part of something larger.”

So it wasn’t exactly normal, and it wasn’t preferred, but it was honest-to-goodness competition, and that was good enough. It felt authentic, even if it sometimes looked odd.

The idea was to start modest and ensure success. So tickets were limited to the players’ families and to members of the team’s two biggest fan clubs; 150 people were invited, 140 tickets were scanned. The families were seated in the portable bleachers on the sideline behind the team bench, and the fan clubs were spread out in the rest of the stadium.

A typical section behind the goal had eight fans spread among 135 seats. And the seats had name tags attached so fans were not allowed to roam from their assigned spots.

The concession stands were closed, which kept the concourses empty, except for restroom visits. Hand-sanitizer stations were omnipresent, and fans were required to wear face masks everywhere but their seats.

Jim Previtera, who is in charge of security and operations at Tropicana Field and Al Lang, is on a national stadium managers coronavirus task force and has been consulting with architecture experts. Some consultants insisted seating capacity could be as high as 75 percent, while others suggested keeping it between 12 and 18 percent.

The USL team in Sandy, Utah, was expected to have 5,300 fans in a 20,000-seat stadium on Saturday. Louisville was planning for 4,800 in its new 11,600-seat stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The Rowdies chose a much more conservative path.

“It’s that idea of doing something for the greater good,” Cohen said. “It’s our responsibility as a sports franchise to figure out a way to get to the point that by July 31, maybe, someone else watching on TV will want to come to a game.”

What went unsaid Saturday night was the ramifications for other leagues and teams. The Rowdies are run by the Tampa Bay Rays ownership group, and Major League Baseball officials have been pondering the possibility of allowing a small number of fans into stadiums after the season begins later this month.

The challenge is not just keeping seating spaced out, but to make sure entering and exiting the stadium does not create a bottleneck and handling rule-breakers in the crowd.

The safety plan used by the Rowdies — which included using one entrance into the stadium and closing down the upper sections of bleachers — could be used as a prototype for Tropicana Field in September if all goes well at Al Lang.

“We could get to 50 percent capacity if we opened the gates at noon and made everyone reach the aisle for their section before we let the next person in,” Previtera said. “You have to look at this as if you are protected by a giant bubble of 6 feet in each direction, and my bubble cannot bump into your bubble or they’ll both pop.”

With meticulous planning and a realistic starting point, the Rowdies seemed to pull off Saturday night without a hitch. It was a night fans had been seemingly waiting forever to enjoy.

For a couple of hours, everyone was allowed to forget the world outside. It was sports. It was entertainment. It was a reminder of what we have missed.

“You know how we’ve been saying we won’t be taking things for granted and we’ve learned how to appreciate things? You know, just enjoy the game, lads,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said on the field hours before kickoff. “Yeah, that will last two minutes. Just wait until the referee makes a bad call.”