To anyone who hasn't been paying attention to the Bucs — and we know there's a bunch of you, given two preseason games were blacked out — here's a news alert: The home opener at Raymond James Stadium is Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. • Diehard fans don't need a lesson in parking, finding the good eats and avoiding traffic on the way out. But a lot of people do. So if you're worried about future games not being aired live on local TV — the punishment for not selling out — you might think about snagging a ticket and saving the home team from future embarrassment. Besides, after a dismal season last year (they finished 3-13), you might get a decent deal on tickets or, at least, ample choice of seats. • We scoped out the scene during several Bucs games last fall and this preseason to dig up things you should know about going to a game and making the most of the experience, regardless of the score.
Where's the best place to park?
General parking is in lots 1, 2 and 14 along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and along Dale Mabry Highway in lots 11 and 13 and at Hillsborough Community College. Parking for all Bucs games is $25. Keep in mind that after the game, Himes Avenue converts to a one-way southbound street. Parking farther south will mean a longer walk to the stadium but fewer headaches after the game. MLK and Dale Mabry remain two-way streets.
Of course, a stadium lot is just one of your parking options. On game days, the neighborhood surrounding RayJay becomes a veritable marketplace as residents try to court you to park on their lawns — for a fee. You can park for as little as $5 if you don't mind a 15-minute walk to the stadium. The closer you get to RayJay, the more you pay. But the most expensive lawn parking we found last season was $20, which is still cheaper than going the official route. We found $20 lawn parking along Himes southeast of the stadium.
If you park in a private yard, make sure the owners don't allow blocking, in case you decide to leave early. Park facing out so it's easier to leave at the end of the game. Showing up a few minutes after kickoff often gets you a cheaper deal.
What's the deal with the street food vendors?
Stadium food is notoriously expensive. But mom-and-pop vendors set up shop around RayJay to sell food at competitive prices. One particularly bountiful block is Himes Avenue between Tampa Bay Boulevard and W Heiter Street. Keep in mind outside food is prohibited inside the stadium, so polish off your meal before you pass through security.
• Tito Ramos and his wife, Nora Ramos, have run Tito's Hotdogs for nine years. "Pass by here, because we have very fresh food at the best prices on the whole street," said Tito, 51, of Tampa. He's not kidding; his prices are low. His bestsellers are Nathan's 1/4-pound hotdogs, which at $2 apiece sure beat the $4.75 dogs ($8 for footlongs) in the stadium. Some of Tito's more unique offerings include arepas ($4), chicken or pork on a stick ($5) and corn on the cob ($2).
• Just down the block from Tito's Hotdogs is Rosamaría Hinkle, who has operated her nameless food stand at every game for a decade. Enjoy a hotdog ($3), beef empanadas ($3), sausages ($5) and more, smothered in Hinkle's vast array of condiments.
• Between Tito's Hotdogs and Hinkle's stand sits Suthr'n Smoke BBQ & Catering, where owner Tim Ross roasts meat in a 12- by 8-foot propane tank turned grill. His most popular fare is the 1/4-rack pork ribs ($8). You'll want to sit down to devour this finger-lickin' fare, which is why Ross sets up tables and chairs in front of his tent. Also save room for the beef brisket, turkey legs, yellow rice and baked beans.
Many vendors keep their stands open until after the game, so if your stomach starts grumbling during the fourth quarter, you may want to hold out. When the game ends, street vendors are eager to unload their leftovers, so they drop their prices. No matter what prices is written on their sign, make them an offer, and you'll likely walk away with a steal of a meal.
What about scalping?
You can find scalpers buying and selling tickets on most major streets around the stadium before every game. A few even show up on Thursday and Friday before a Sunday game for those fans more intent on tailgating than hunting for tickets. Remember, it's legal to resell tickets for a profit, thanks to a 2006 change in state law.
Prices vary depending on how the Bucs are playing. Expect to pay more if the Bucs are winning and less if they have a repeat of last year, when tickets sold way below face value toward the end of the season. Some examples: Minutes before the start of last year's game against the New York Jets, lower bowl tickets sold for $40 to $50 apiece, about half the face value. Upper bowl seats went for three for $100.
Want to upgrade your seats? Don't hesitate to ask. Scalpers with lots of extra tickets will often upgrade a seat location for $10 to $20 apiece, depending on the trade.
Beware of buying tickets that have been printed out on a computer. If you do, ask the seller to walk you to the entrance to ensure the tickets are valid. Most scalpers close to the stadium will. And if you prefer not to haggle, there's also plenty of tickets available online through sites such as Craigslist, eBay and StubHub.
Are club seats worth the extra money?
For some folks, eating a sloppy hotdog while the guy next to them spills beer on their shoes is half the fun of attending a live football game. If you prefer the rough-and-tumble notion of watching football among thousands of other rambunctious fans, then stick to general seating. But if you're, say, the type of person whose idea of camping is sleeping in a luxury Winnebago, then the stadium's 10,000 club seats may be for you. Season club seats start at $195 per game. Here are some highlights. For details on club seating, call toll-free, 1-866-582-2827.
The comfort. First, there's the club floor itself: an air-conditioned, carpeted space full of couches and high-top tables where you can watch the game on the many flat screen televisions. If you head outside, you'll watch the game from your assigned, lower-level, cushioned seat.
The convenience. Club seat customers get access to private entrances and a concierge who can answer account questions and help with game-day requests. Season-ticket clubbers can buy preferred parking passes for right next to the stadium for $200 a season. For the kiddies, the club level offers face-painting and balloon art.
The food. Arrive 90 minutes before kickoff for the pregame buffet, which costs $44.95 per person. For the main event, of course club-level concessions sell the usual hotdogs, burgers and nachos. Among the specialty items available only in the club level are: carving station serving up turkey and brisket on an onion kaiser bun and a side of kettle chips ($10); Cuban sandwiches ($9.25); arroz con pollo ($10); bottomless flavored popcorn ($7); California sushi rolls ($10); and Rice Krispies Treats ($4.50).
The drinks. Beer and wine are available throughout the stadium, but the club ups the ante with two full-liquor bars serving cocktails and specialty beers. Where else can you sip sake or sangria while watching a quarterback sack?
Two words: Dessert Extravaganza. Once a season around the holidays, club-level and luxury suite ticket holders are treated to a halftime Dessert Extravaganza. Folks begin streaming downstairs during the second quarter for cookies, ice cream floats, dessert shots, a sundae bar and more served up by staffers in Santa hats. Stay tuned for the date of this season's dessert fest.
The bathrooms. Each club-level restroom has an assigned attendant, so you don't have to worry about dirty facilities. Club bathrooms are also equipped with a TV so you never miss a minute of the action. On the contrary, main-level restrooms feature floating attendants and audio play-by-play.
Any deals worth knowing about?
During every game, Miller Lite sponsors a deck party in the end zone opposite the pirate ship. Guests get free admission to the game, three free beers and coupons for $10 worth of food. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, so get there early. The view of the field from the bar tables and stools is pretty good. Vouchers for the deck party are available from Miller Lite girls who visit bars and on specially marked 18-packs of beers. The vouchers are redeemable for tickets at the stadium gate. Occasionally, they pop up for sale on Craigslist.
Eating at the stadium doesn't have to cost a week's paycheck. An $8 combo deal gets you a hotdog, hamburger or cheeseburger with a side of fries, a pretzel or peanuts and a regular drink. The stadium also sells a bottomless soda for $6.50 and a bottomless bucket of popcorn for $7.
What really happens on the pirate ship?
About two dozen volunteers assigned to Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base work the pirate ship during home games. They fire off the cannons, shoot T-shirts to fans, toss beads during commercial breaks and host people on the ship.
Capt. Cleve Johnson leads the crew, which arrives at about 9:30 a.m. on game days to set up. The cannons, which operate with a push of a button, fire six times for every touchdown, three times for every field goal and once every time the Bucs enter the red zone. The "skull'' button releases smoke from the skeleton's nose on the front of the ship.
Working the ship requires a lot of lifting and hoisting the sails. The cannons actually shoot carbon dioxide to create the smoke, and a separate mixture of oxygen, propane and nitrogen create the noise. Another crew from SoCom works the attack flags on the top of the stadium.
About 75 to 100 guests get on the ship each week, courtesy of the Glazers who distribute passes to corporate sponsors. There's no restroom, seating or any amenities on the ship, but the view and photo ops are great.
How do I exit quickly after the game?
Locals recommend hitting Himes, which converts into a one-way southbound street after each game. From Himes, turn left (east) on any of the residential side streets. From there you can get to MacDill, Armenia or Howard avenues. For those headed to St. Petersburg, take MacDill to Kennedy, then east to Interstate 275 and avoid the interstate traffic near the stadium.