Another pro sports franchise has hit our shores, promising fun, physicality and a fast pace.
Forgive us if we greet it with more than a smidgen of skepticism.
The Tampa Bay Strikers, fielding both men’s and women’s teams in the second-year National Indoor Soccer League, debuted Sunday (the women won, the men lost) before a sparse audience at Yuengling Center on USF’s campus. With an enclosed setting, 200-foot-long field and six players to a side (including the goalkeeper), the sport seems a hockey-soccer hybrid.
“That’s why I think the casual fan will love it,” said former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica, who coaches both Strikers teams. “And the soccer fan can love the fact that we have another chance to watch a different type of soccer, but it’s soccer.”
Still, this is hardly the first niche sport or newfangled league to arrive in our area. To the contrary, Tampa Bay just might lead the nation in fledgling sports franchises. From Bombers to Bandits, Renegades to Rollin’ Thunder, we’ve seen a smorgasbord of pro teams try to make their mark with varying degrees of success.
Five, in our opinion, have especially flourished. We’ve ranked them right here.
This list excludes our mainstream, major-sports franchises (Bucs, Lightning, Rays) as well the Rowdies (who still exist and have survived several incarnations). Our main criteria for these rankings: on-field (or on-court) success, popularity and longevity.
5. Tampa Bay Thrillers
League: Continental Basketball Association
Home venue: Bayfront Center (1984-85, 1986-87), University of Tampa (1985-86)
Though a rousing success on the court, the Thrillers couldn’t draw an audience locally, and came and went like a roadside produce stand. Coached by Bill Musselman, whose journeyman career included stints as coach of the NBA’s Cavaliers and Timberwolves, the Thrillers won the league title each of their three seasons in the area, though few noticed. In their second year, guard Kevin Williams (who ultimately had brief stints with five NBA teams) scored 58 points in a game against the Baltimore Lightning and 59 in a playoff game 10 days later. But attendance had bottomed out by then (as low as 295 for one game), and new owner John Tuschuman moved the team to South Dakota before the end of the third season.
4. Tampa Bay Mutiny
League: Major League Soccer
Home venue: Houlihan’s Stadium (1996-98), Raymond James Stadium (1999-2001)
One of 10 Major League Soccer charter franchises, the Mutiny made some splashes, but never any money. Behind Colombian superstar Carlos Valderrama — whose bronze Afro bore a finger-in-a-socket effect — the Mutiny boasted the the league’s best regular season record (2012) in their inaugural year and won 17 games the following season. Problem was, the team (owned by the league) never could secure local ownership and hemorrhaged money. Only 9,932 showed up at Raymond James Stadium for the Mutiny’s final game, a 2-1 loss to Columbus on Sept. 4, 2001, to cap a 4-21-2 season.
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3. Clearwater Bombers
League: Various, but mainly Amateur Softball Association
Home venue: Jack Russell Stadium
Though technically an amateur team (wink, wink), we’re including the Bombers on this list because for decades they were the area’s marquee sports entity. Headquartered at the original Jack Russell Stadium on North Greenwood Avenue, the Bombers had success, star power and an electric home atmosphere. They won more than 4,000 games in their existence, captured 10 national fast-pitch titles and finished second eight other times. Among the 24 players the team placed in the National Softball Hall of Fame was pitcher Herb Dudley, who won more than 1,000 games and pitched an estimated 100 no-hitters. Later-year rosters included current USF softball coach Ken Eriksen, but by then the Bucs, Lightning and other entities had arrived, and the Bombers were an afterthought.
2. Tampa Bay Bandits
League: United States Football League
Home venue: Tampa Stadium
For three scintillating years at the outset of the MTV era, the Bandits totally upstaged their creamsicle counterparts. Before unleashing his Fun ‘n’ Gun offense on the SEC, Steve Spurrier tried it out here in the greatest non-NFL pro football league this nation has ever known, and it flourished. Buoyed by that revolutionary offense, an A-list minority owner (Burt Reynolds) and an ensemble of NFL-caliber talent (John Reaves, Gary Anderson, Nate Newton), the Bandits routinely drew crowds of more than 40,000. Though they never won a league title, the Bandits made the playoffs in two of their three years, and boasted the highest average attendance (43,760) during that brief history of the original USFL.
1. Tampa Bay Storm
League: Arena Football League
Home venue: ThunderDome, now known as Tropicana Field (1991-1996), Ice Palace/St. Pete Times Forum/Tampa Bay Times Forum/Amalie Arena (1997-2017)
When the Pittsburgh Gladiators (one of Arena Football League’s four original franchises) relocated to Tampa at the dawn of the 1990s, a diminutive dynasty was born. Though overseen by a handful of owners (some more dubious than others), the Storm won five AFL titles and spawned mini-celebrities out of players such as quarterback (and Chamberlain High alumnus) Jay Gruden and receiver Stevie Thomas. By 2017, however, the AFL had dwindled to five teams, and then-owner Jeff Vinik made the tough decision to pull the plug.
Did you forget these franchises?
Some other local pro sports entities that have come and gone:
St. Pete Pelicans (1989-90), Senior Professional Baseball Association
Tampa Bay Flash (1986), United States Basketball League
Tampa Bay Stars (1987), United States Basketball League
Tampa Bay Sunblasters (1992), United States Basketball League
Tampa Bay Windjammers (1996-99), United States Basketball League
Tampa Bay ThunderDawgs (2000-01), American Basketball Association 2000
Tampa Bay Vipers (2020), XFL
St. Petersburg Renegades (1992-93), Sunshine Hockey League
Tampa Bay Tritons (1994), Roller Hockey International
Tampa Bay Rollin’ Thunder (1997-98), Major League Roller Hockey
St. Pete Parrots (2002), Atlantic Coast Hockey League
Tampa Bay Terror (1995-97), National Professional Soccer League
Tampa Bay FireStix (1997-2000), Women’s Professional Softball League
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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