They huddle in the stands, a bundle of painted beards and bodies hoisting gigantic signs and beating a drum, singing, jumping, never sitting. They look organized and efficient, yet somehow sweetly chaotic. "Oh, when the Mob, goes marching in," they chant. "Oh, when the Mob goes marching in."
Average soccer fans might wonder who they are. Why they're there. What their secret code word is.
And can mere mortals join?
They're Ralph's Mob, the official supporter group of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Their passion is tenfold that of most fans. To the uninitiated, it might appear an odd, exclusive crew. But take in any soccer match in Europe or Latin America, and you'll see supporter groups numbering in the hundreds, chanting and ranting in unison. The practice is growing here, getting more sophisticated each year.
"I think they're one of the best in the league, not only home but away," Rowdies spokesman Jeffrey Kamis said of Ralph's Mob. "They've done a good job of traveling at road games for us. They are more organized, and they are doing it in a way where it becomes a culture."
In 1975, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were the area's first professional sports team. They shut down in 1993 and went on hiatus for 17 years before returning as FC Tampa Bay. When Tampa fan Paul Peluso heard soccer was returning, he started coordinating a plan online, seeking supporters to be out front and loud. Ralph's Mob was born with a meager nine members at the first 2010 preseason game.
It's a different scenario these days. A legal dispute recently ended, freeing the team to be called the Rowdies again. Ralph's Mob is more amped than ever. The first away game is at Saturday against the Puerto Rico Islanders, followed by the April 14 home opener at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field against FC Edmonton. To prepare, we offer a primer on the mob, the lingo, the traditions, and life with the loudest of fans.
Membership: The group grew from nine at the first preseason game to 40 at the first official game. Now, there are more than 100 paid members of Ralph's Mob, and many more casual members. They're all ages, races and genders, all volunteers with day jobs. They paint their faces and wear tutus and capes and mohawks. "We take everything an extra five steps. We amplify everything," said Ralph's Mob president, Charlie Cole, 32. "We're the most passionate fans."
Cost: Anyone can join for free. "If you come and stand in the stands at the game and clap along and support us, you're in the mob," said Cole. After that, a basic membership is $20 annually, which includes a 2012 Ralph's Mob T-shirt. For $25, you also get a scarf, and for a $40 gold package, you get the shirt, scarf, commemorative beer mug and drawstring backpack. They money goes toward creating signs and traveling.
Style: Ralph's Mob is modeled after English, German and Scandinavian supporter groups. They slam a single large drum and do sporadic singing and chanting. Latin-style supporter groups sing all the time, regardless of what's happening on the field. Many North American leagues have European-style groups. The gold standard supporter group is the well-respected Timbers Army of the Portland Timbers. "They've kind of become the model of what everyone else is striving to be," said Cole.
Logo: The Ralph's Mob Logo has an MMX, for the 2010 inaugural season. And, there's a picture of Ralph.
Ralph? Ralph was the original Rowdies mascot, a tough guy with crossed, hulking arms and a handlebar mustache. Ralph's Mob organizers liked his style.
The sock: The Rowdies previously employed a giant sock as their mascot. His name was Hoops, and he's gone this season. "They retired him to some hills in Montana," Cole said. "We don't know where the sock came from. We don't know whose idea the sock was. While we love Hoops, let's face it. He was a dirty sock. We got tired of hearing the jokes. We would be happy if they brought Ralph back, but we're not big on mascots." Kamis said there will be no mascot this season, but they'll keep thinking about a suitable replacement.
Rivals: The Rowdies have an intense rivalry with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The feud has trickled into the supporter groups. Members of Ralph's Mob caravan to Strikers games and pull out their most raucous and annoying chants. "It's definitely a pride thing when we have 30 or 50 supporters that make the trip down there," said Cole. "We're loud. We try to outshine their supporters."
Tifo: "Tifo" comes from an Italian word to describe a group of fans. Now, supporter groups use it to coin signs, balloons and anything choreographed to support the team. Last year, the Ralph's Mob tifo-de-resistance were three enormous signs supported with PVC pipe.
Capo: The "Capo" is the person who leads the group in a song or chant. They're responsible for striking up the right tunes for the right mood and filling any lulls, though sometimes it just happens organically.
Taboos: Ralph's Mob tries to curb cursing, even though some chants have salty words and you can't predict the outcome of beer and passion. "They're pretty good," said Kamis of the behavior. "Sometimes maybe they have a quick lapse and forget there are other fans in the stands. We want to make sure we're catering to everyone." Smoke bombs are forbidden in the stadium, to their dismay. "If we ever get our own stadium, hopefully that does change," said Cole. "One of the most fun things about being in a support group is lighting smoke bombs. It creates an atmosphere."
Noise: Most people are cool with the volume that comes from Ralph's Mob, Cole said. And if not, they try to brush it off. "If you're going to complain about people standing and chanting and having a good time," Cole said, "I'm not sure this is the best place for you."