One of American soccer’s most storied and celebrated names returns in 2012 as the (new) NASL’s Tampa Bay team recently re-acquired its traditional name and logos after a protracted legal battle. The original Rowdies were my first soccer love, the team of my youth, my pride and joy, the Bay area’s first major professional team and “a kick in the grass” from 1975 until they folded in 1993. The Rowdies’ logo and familiar cartoon character, Ralph, were the creation of artist Scott Ross, who recently took time to answer a few questions about the genesis of these icons, including how the beloved “Rowdie Ralph” was originally known as Reggie.
Q. When did you first get involved with the Rowdies? Did they approach you, how did that work?
A. In early 1975 I read an article in the Tampa Tribune about a new professional soccer team coming in the spring. I sent some slide samples of my illustration work over to their temporary office (a condo in Carrollwood). I had recently graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Advertising and Editorial Art and moved to the Tampa Bay area. I was freelancing as an illustrator while working a full-time job at an architectural delineation firm in Clearwater. I was happily surprised when I got a call from a guy working for the team and asked to come over for a meeting. I met Beau Rogers (the general manager) and George Strawbridge (the owner) at that meeting and after they hired me to come up with a logo, Rogers asked if he could be my manager. It was a good day for a 24-year-old struggling artist.
Q. The word mark is probably a good place to start. It’s very unique, even today. What were you trying to accomplish with that, what was the inspiration and what did you go through before you hit on the final design?
A. They already had an ad agency in Atlanta working on their PR stuff and I was given a rough sketch of a logo and asked to “clean it up a little and make it less strange-looking.” I re-worked it but still kept the original idea for the one-color version. Then I came up with the two-color version using the colors of their uniform. Originally the letters were very close together and all the ends of the letters were longer. I think originally someone used the look of the psychedelic Haight-Ashbury Fillmore posters for the lettering but it was highly unreadable. When i did the original character logo I added the border around the lettering so I could add a trim color. I messed with all the letters to make it more readable and more commercial even though it was pretty unique for the time or any time.
Q. Then there’s Rowdie Ralph, who went through some changes over time. Where did he come from? Did you get direction from the team that they wanted this or that?
A. Beau Rogers just turned me loose on it and took the first version I came up with. Since most of the original players were from England and I was a big Elton John fan at the time I wanted the character to be called Reggie, but Beau immediately started calling him Ralph and that’s what stuck. I thought that name was boring as hell, but as long as they kept sending checks I thought Ralph sounded great! Originally they thought they would have yellow and green uniforms and that was why it was that way on everything even though the uniforms debuted as white and stayed that way. Ralph was used as the official Rowdies character logo from the get-go until they ceased to exist (in 1994). It was put on millions of shirts and everything else you can imagine. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t care much for it in short order because in the next couple years I became a better artist and changed the style a bit. In the following years I created an official schedule poster every year and changed the character a lot every year.
Q. So the Ralph we see in 1975 and the various iterations from 1977-on, they’re all the same character?
A. Yeah, it’s all the same guy if I say it is, right?
Q. Did you also do the Wowdies (dance team) logo (which was just one letter off)?
A. Yes I did the Wowdies and Fannies logos. I actually did full color elaborate character versions of those two logos and was asked to haul them out to San Jose because (then-Rowdies PR man) Francisco Marcos thought he could get them on the CBS broadcast that day. I left them in their trailer and no one ever saw them again, so I have no record of those. The artwork I do have is what I managed to salvage from the old days and scan in so I had digital files to share for things like your blog. I’m guessing that I lost at least a third of all the artwork I created over the years for the Rowdies. In those days I painted everything on illustration board with paint and that was that. Since 1992 I’ve only worked digitally so I have perfect originals of everything I’ve done since that time because I only have to send copies to clients. What you see on my website is a drop in the bucket of all the work over the years because I would always have to send off the original painting and never see it again except for printed versions.
Q. You gave life to these things and then let them go and they’re still popular today. Is that just part and parcel of the job?
A. Everything I did was work for hire and I never signed any agreement whatsoever as far as copyright for anything-let me call a lawyer! I was hired to paint posters, special event artwork, t-shirt designs, caricatures for visiting stars (like Pele, Elton John etc.) and lots of other stuff. I was just glad to get the work at that time and they promoted me right along with the team and allowed me to travel with them all over the country. Those first few years were very exciting for me as well as all those wild British soccer players who were having their American adventure.
Q. What was that like, to be hanging out with the team that was such a big deal in the Bay area at that time?
A. The first few years I would party with all the players at functions around Tampa Bay and especially at (nightclub) Boneshaker’s in Hyde Park after every game. I was very friendly with the whole office staff, players, coaches (Coach Eddie Firmani was a really wonderful, friendly guy) and still communicate with some of them. Since Beau Rogers was an owner and my manager, I had access to every part of the stadium, including the owner’s box and the field. Through the Rowdies I was introduced to the league offices and did Kick (magazine) covers, caricatures of the players and posters as well as projects for lots of league sponsors. I sat on the bench lots of times and would fill an empty seat once in awhile on their flights to away games. That first year championship in San Jose was great. To this day I can still hear the explosion of the midfield blast by Arsene Auguste that won the game and the craziness afterward of winning it all in the first year. I don’t even know why I was sitting on the bench during that game, but I do remember Kyle Rote, Jr. sitting beside me as well as Bruce Jenner (He was training for the Olympics that he would win and living around San Jose back then). I got to meet lots of celebrities (Leroy Neiman, Pele, Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger, and various other people of the day) by traveling with them and partying afterward. It was great because all of the players were pretty young and in America for the first time and all of them were really nice guys off the field.
Q. And now your work has new life. Have you been following the sturm und drang over that?
A. I just read about the new team purchasing the logo lately. So far I’ve only seen a one color version being used. No one has ever contacted me from the new team. I don’t think they are interested in any old stuff really, just capitalizing on the goodwill of the old team in this community.
Many thanks to Scott (whose website full of outstanding work is here) and to Ian Morris, whose excellent Rowdies blog was the source of some of the photos, illustrations and information above.