One is the loneliest number... - Mike Ehrmann
For the 18th time in 21 games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seen their game blacked out locally. Where are the fans? Why are they not coming?
It's stunning isn't it? A community so in love with their football team that they strung together a decade of sellouts and had (allegedly) a 100,000 person waiting list for season tickets.
Now? They can't sell out one of the biggest games in the last five years for this franchise. They can't sell out, despite an exciting brand of football with a quarterback raining bombs downfield and a running back that is defying belief. They can't sell out despite the new coach, new direction and a belief in family.
Where have all the Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans gone?
Tampa Bay citizens have been using the "It's the economy, stupid" excuse as a crutch for the last few years to account for poor attendance with all of their sports teams. The region certainly was one of the hardest hit during the great recession, with home prices plummeting and the jobless rate skyrocketing to major heights in through 2009 to early 2011. However, like the nation, the jobless rates have significantly declined in the Tampa Bay area. While at one point, the Tampa Bay region's unemployment rate was higher than any NFL location - it's no longer the case.
Detroit is at 10.7%, Charlotte 9.6%, Buffalo at 9.2% and Philadelphia at 8.8%. Yet these communities are still able to sell out their games no matter the quality of their team.
The Tampa Bay region is 8.7%.
That's not to say that people in the bay area aren't underemployed or have more discretionary income than before the recession - that's certainly not the case. In Feb of 2007, the jobless rate for the region was 3.7%.
In January of 2010, the unemployment rate for the region crested at a massive 13.4%. The economy in the bay area has improved, but it certainly isn't what it once was during the salad days of sellouts.
The Big Screen TV generation
In conjunction with the downturn in Tampa's economy, was a generation of Buccaneer fans who grew into maturity watching their football team at home on their big screen tvs, surround sound systems and multiple replays angles.
These are fans who enjoy having the guys over, cooking in the backyard, drinking their own brews at supermarket prices and not having to deal with screaming fans, foul language, traffic, high prices on beer and food and not getting the replay of a crucial play right in front of you.
When the blackouts began to occur - these were the fans who screamed and complained the loudest.
They're still out there - but instead of buying a ticket to the game, these folks are driving long distances for a bar outside the blackout area or worse, filling their computers with viruses and spyware as they look for internet feeds.
Some have perfected the avoidance of going to games - having their directv "official address" be in an area outside the blackout zone, possibly a friend's house in another community, so they can still get the Bucs game on Sunday ticket.
Whether they can't afford to go to the games or just don't like the stadium experience - these are the fans that rely on the other fans in the community to get the ballgame on for them and complain when it doesn't happen.
Some of these fans will eventually go to the game but only purchase a ticket once the blackout has been established, thus enabling the NFL to keep this stupid archaic rule by giving them statistical evidence that it does still work.
Yes, like any community, the Tampa Bay region has a core of 45-50,000 dedicated fans who will go to every single game. The rest is made up by fairweather fan. These are fans who only go to the games if the team is winning - if its an "event" or a place to be seen.
Yet, ironically, the Fairweathers aren't coming either. In 2010, when Bucs posted a 10-6 record, Tampa Bay had its worst drop in attendance - only filling up Raymond James Stadium 75% of capacity per game on the year. Tampa Bay's attendance actually improved to 86% of capacity in 2011 when the team followed up its winning season by getting off to a 4-2 start, but this season - after the collapse at the end of 2011, many of these fairweathers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Tampa Bay fans have filled the stadium 82% of capacity this season.
Burned Bridges by the Glazers
There is a lot of resentment still out there for the Glazer family. When Raymond James Stadium was constructed, you couldn't buy a season ticket without a personal seat license. This seat license locked you in for 10 years, where you wouldn't get your money back unless you fulfilled the decade long commitment.
Depending on the amount of tickets you bought and where your seat was located, the Glazers could (and did on occasion) sue you for the remainder of the commitment. This dogged chase for the dollar rubbed several fans the wrong way.
Add to that the Glazers themselves changed their approach. From 1997-2004, no price was too much for the chance at winning. The Glazers were the anti-Culverhouse, spending money in gobs to bring a winner to Tampa Bay. High priced free agents, millions for a coach - it added up to a Super Bowl championship in 2002 and a consistent winner from 97-2008. The fans responded by packing Raymond James Stadium every single week. Blackouts were for the creamsicle generation.
Then something changed. The family decided to purchase a controlling stake in Manchester United - the premiere English football (soccer) club in the world. This was like taking control of the New York Yankees - and for the Glazers, it was a huge investment.
While millions were spent on Man U, suddenly Buc fans began to see their fan favorite players like John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks let go to free agency (or in Brooks' case, be outright dumped). Gone were Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson and Simeon Rice.
Yet the Glazers wouldn't replace them with high priced free agents. They forced upon Jon Gruden the use of re-treads and practice squad players because the pocket book was closed.
Meanwhile, in their post Super Bowl fervor, the Glazers raised ticket prices significantly. In some cases, those trapped by the ten year agreement were forced to over leverage themselves. This specifically impacted local businesses who bought blocks of tickets and were threatened with lawsuit if they didn't continue to pay through the length of the seat license.
At the end of the 2008 season, it was no shock that the season ticket base for the Buccaneers plummeted as the 10 year commitment expired. It didn't help that the Bucs fired their Super Bowl winning coach and instilled the unknown Raheem Morris as his replacement. Some say Gruden was fired because he demanded more of an investment in free agency from the Glazers.
The next three seasons saw the continued high ticket prices, no movement in free agency and a significant decline in the product on the field.
Yes, the Bucs managed a 10-6 record and it did attract some of the fan base back, but when the team quit on their coach at the end of the 2011 season, it seemed the final straw had been laid down for many a fan.
To their credit, the Glazers recognized they let the Buccaneers die on the vine while they pursued their fortunes with Manchester United. This past off-season, they fired the overmatched Morris and found a coach that would instill discipline and accountability for the players.They lowered ticket prices across the board.
They recognized that they needed significant upgrades in talent and dove headfirst into the free agent pool, getting big fish Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks. Finally, they brought in help for General Manager Mark Dominik and new coach Schiano in the form of Butch Davis, who has an eye for college talent. The Bucs may have turned in one of their best drafts in years.
So why are there still no fans coming to games?
The Mike Florio's and other national pundits can mock the Tampa Bay community, point at us and say, "Hey look, these folks don't care about their team."
It's the furthest thing from the truth. Its the fact that the Buccaneer fanbase is so passionate that they have been voting with their wallets on what they've seen.
They weren't happy with the way their favorite players, local businesses and fans were treated by the Glazers. They saw how good it could be in this sports market when an owner cares - thanks to the Lightning's Jeffrey Vinik, who transformed that franchise from one in disarray to one that is a model for the league.
As a result, attendance for the Lightning soared from just 78% in 2009-10 to 96% in 2011-12.
After the Super Bowl, the Glazers took their fans and community in Tampa Bay for granted and tried to take advantage of their popularity by turning it into a cash cow for their other ventures.
One off-season and 10 weeks of unexpectedly competitive play won't mend those burned bridges that quickly.
For fans (like myself) who have weathered the storm and stuck with the team, blackouts have never been an issue. I've seen every Bucs game since 1998 (my first year buying in to season tickets). But even I considered dropping my tickets for 2012 after last season's debacle. I wasn't going to allow the Glazers to take advantage of me any more.
To their credit, they stepped up to the plate and actually displayed some interest in the franchise. For that, they got my commitment for this season. I think if they continue to show they care, the team on the football field continues to build and sustain a competitive team, the economy continues to improve and they no longer strong arm local businesses into long commitments they can't afford - the fans will return.
It may never be like it was. Some fans refuse to ever set foot in Raymond James Stadium again as long as the Glazers are the owners. Yet the days of blackouts could be numbered if they continue to do the right things and show the majority of the fanbase that they really have shifted their gaze back to Tampa Bay and not in England.