St. Petersburg city officials are learning that the quickest way to make an enemy of soccer fans is to infringe on their ability to express their passion.
For years Ralph’s Mob, the independent supporters group of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, has been using green and gold smoke grenades as part of their celebrations at Al Lang Stadium. It’s a tradition that mob members, along with countless other soccer fans across the globe, hold near and dear to their hearts.
That tradition came under threat last Tuesday when members of Ralph’s Mob and Rowdies team staff met with St. Petersburg Fire Marshal Michael Domante, who informed them that the use of smoke devices would be prohibited entirely going forward. Mob members at the meeting also claim Domante said any fans in violation risked arrest, that matches could be ceased, and the stadium could even be evacuated.
Everyone at the meeting was reportedly taken aback by Domante’s hard line stance, as they had come to the table hoping to have an open-minded discussion on the issue of smoke devices at the city-owned venue; however, Domante was not interested in doing the same. The Fire Marshal declined to look at the manufacturer specs and research brought to the meeting, and instead informed the team and the supporters it was in his purview as Fire Marshal to enforce the statute as he saw fit and that he was acting on behalf of the city.
The next day the Rowdies and Ralph’s Mob reached out to Mayor Kriseman to have the decision reversed or reopened in hopes of having a chance to address the city’s concerns.
At this point Ralph’s Mob went public on its social media platforms to pressure Kriseman and the city into acquiescing. As expected, the online soccer community likewise came to the Mob’s defense. The Independent Supporters Council of North America and other groups from across the country, many of whom implement the same smoke devices, rallied behind Ralph’s Mob.
Kriseman’s response eventually came on Thursday afternoon, and it struck a much different tone than the one Mob members claim Domante demonstrated in their initial meeting. The Mayor (who has previously marched with the Mob during gameday festivities) began by affirming that, “The City of St. Petersburg is not banning smoke devices at Rowdies’ matches, as we want to ensure the matches remain a fun and lively experience for fans.”
So, problem solved? Not really.
The Mayor continued by emphasizing that public safety remained “paramount.” He noted that the Rowdies were informed by the city late last year that the club’s own rules stated that no smoke devices can be activated in “close proximity to another person,” and that the rule must be enforced in 2020.
The Rowdies have not publicly weighed in on the issue, but those involved in the discussions say the club has been nothing but supportive of the continued use of smoke devices.
Rowdies players certainly haven’t been silenced by the club on the matter, and several voiced their support for Ralph’s Mob on Twitter and Instagram, and a handful have posed for pictures with fan-made signs protesting the prospective smoke ban after the club’s preseason match against Inter Miami FC over the weekend.
Curiously, Kriseman’s response also claims SPFR determined the devices in question measured at 800 degrees. It’s a puzzling assertion considering the manufacturer of the cool burn smoke grenades states the maximum temperature is roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit and the operating temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since Ralph’s Mob is unaware what exactly was tested and how it was tested, the group is left to wonder how St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue (SPFR) reached its results.
Kriseman closed his response to the Mob by saying, “St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue is confident that through coordination with the Rowdies Organization we can both ensure public safety and health and allow smoke to be deployed. As soccer fans and fans of the atmosphere created at Al Lang Stadium, we look forward to seeing the Rowdies’ colors billowing from Al Lang Stadium for years to come.”
When Domante returned to the Rowdies after Kriseman’s response, Ralph’s Mob was not included. The Rowdies were told in that meeting that in order for the fans to keep their smoke, the club would have to pay to obtain fire permits for every match, add extra fire personnel to supervise the smoke devices, only permit team employees to use the devices, and only activate the devices in newly designated areas far away from fans and the field, according to both sources and documentation obtained in support of this article.
A week removed from that first meeting that kicked all this off, and the ire has only been rekindled by this list of requirements, which Ralph’s Mob deemed unreasonable in a statement on Monday.
No one from the city or SPFR seems to have adequately explained what led to this drastic approach to smoke after years of it never being a problem; however, it’s worth noting that the city has recently been at odds with Rowdies ownership over stadium rights for its other franchise, the Tampa Bay Rays. Up until last week the Rowdies and the city had been on seemingly excellent terms since the club took over management of Al Lang in 2014 and invested $1.5 million into the neglected venue.
If these demands are related to specific concerns within the Pinellas County fire code , it is also worth noting that no other cities with soccer teams in the state of Florida are clamping down on smoke use in the same way. In fact, most revel in its use. Ralph’s Mob leadership has consistently asked SPFR to consider the best practices used throughout Florida and across the country. So far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.
Additionally, the local fire code specifically differentiates “smoke devices” with “not more than ten grams* of pyrotechnic composition” from “fireworks” within its enforceable ordinances. The spirit of the law makes room for smoke, but seemingly goes the extra mile with this definition.
We’re still about a month away from the Rowdies’ home opener on March 21, so there is still time for cooler heads to prevail. For the moment, though, fans are continuing to express their displeasure. Some have gone as far as pledging to not spend any money at restaurants or bars in St. Pete on Rowdies match days unless the smoke issue is resolved entirely.
All this is happening as the Rowdies enter the final year of their use-agreement to manage Al Lang Stadium. Previous owner Bill Edwards quietly renewed the agreement with the city back at the end of 2016 ahead of the club’s move to the USL Championship for the 2017 season.
When the Tampa Bay Rays bought the Rowdies from Edwards, they agreed to a provision to keep the club in St. Petersburg for at least five years. We’re in year two of that promise and Al Lang remains the best possible spot for the Rowdies for the time being, though no one really knows what would happen if the Rays decide it’s in their interest to break the agreement.
Rays officials have previously discussed the possibility of moving the Rowdies into the stadium they hope to build as part of their shared-team proposal with Montreal, a requirement Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has made clear in previous discussions during the Rays Stadium Saga.
*DRaysBay has reached out to the manufacturer for additional details on the grams of pyrotechnics in the 40g weight smoke grenades utilized by Rowdies supporters