TAMPA — From the look of the menu, it was a good time inside the Tampa Sports Authority suite during the recent College Football Playoff national championship game at Raymond James Stadium.
Attendees dined on platters of sushi, grouper sliders and baby back ribs, plus Cuban wings and artisan cheese. They washed it down with six bottles of wine, vodka and Stella Artois tall boys. For dessert: Fresh-baked cookies, chocolate pretzels and a key lime layer cake.
By the time the orange and white confetti fell on the field after Clemson's win, the suite had racked up a bill of $3,181.
And taxpayers picked up the tab.
The big bill wasn't a one-off for a special occasion. A Tampa Bay Times review of the authority's 2016 food and drink invoices found the taxpayer-funded agency spent $37,600 during Tampa Bay Buccaneers games and other events at Raymond James Stadium.
Who is in the suite for those games? Mostly authority board members and their guests.
The 11 volunteer board members, chosen by Hillsborough County, the city of Tampa and the governor, get two free tickets to every Bucs game, plus an extra two tickets to two games. The tickets are valued at $500 each and they can snag unused tickets to the 36-person suite as well.
Board chairman Vincent Marchetti, for example, received 42 suite tickets to 10 Buccaneer home preseason and regular season games last year, more than anyone else. Their total value: $21,000.
And while in the suite, board members, their guests and other invitees of the TSA eat and drink on the taxpayer's dime. The TSA is a public agency that operates Raymond James Stadium and because it costs more to run the facility than the agency brings in, the county and city chipped in about $2.9 million last year to make up the shortfall.
Sports Authority president and CEO Eric Hart said providing free food and drinks is the cost of doing business. He said the suite often hosts current and potential clients and showing them a good time pays off later.
For example, the relationship built in that suite with Feld Entertainment persuaded the company to increase to two Monster Jam shows instead of one, Hart said. That increased the TSA's annual take from $200,000 to $750,000.
"It's a general expectation that if we're inviting clients or VIP guests to come in, we use that as a marketing tool," Hart said. "And that's one of the expenses that we've incurred to sell the authority."
But Tampa City Council member and TSA board member Frank Reddick said it may be time for a change.
"I understand it's been this way for years," Reddick said. "But maybe that's something that needs to be reviewed."
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The policy was already reviewed once before.
In 2005, amid public outrage over game-day catering bills that exceeded $1,000, TSA board members voted to scale back the free food and alcohol they received in the suite.
Hot dogs and burgers only, they said. Hard alcohol was off-limits unless they paid for it themselves. Each board member had to chip in $100 a year to cover the beer and wine tab.
They have since gone off their diet.
When the Chicago Bears came to Tampa to face the Bucs on Nov. 13, board members dined on $537 worth of barbecue short ribs and sofrita braised chicken while drinking $317 in beer, wine and liquor.
During the Sept. 25 game against the Los Angeles Rams, $57 and $51 bottles of wine accompanied pan-roasted grouper on a bill that totaled $2,226. On Nov. 3, board members and guests in the suite were treated to a build-your-own strawberry shortcake buffet as they watched the Atlanta Falcons beat the Bucs, according to invoices and catering menus.
The free food is not limited to Bucs games. It is also served at concerts and University of South Florida football games. In fact, the most expensive invoice of last year, $3,060, came during the April 29 Beyonce concert. Bottles of Absolut vodka, Maker's Mark bourbon and Captain Morgan rum pushed the alcohol bill north of $400.
Board members changed the suite rules in 2012. They added fajitas, cheese platters, meatballs, sausages, salads, chips, nuts and popcorn to the menu and gave themselves flexibility to upgrade to better options for special events or when VIPs are in town.
But bills showed the food choices frequently diverged from this list. Hart said that's because the agency often ordered catering packages that are cheaper for feeding a room of 36 but sometimes include items off the approved list. He attributed the uptick in expenses since 2005 to the rising cost of food at games.
"You're not seeing anything exorbitant except for one or two times for special events," Hart said.
The board also voted in 2012 to raise the amount each member paid to $125 a year, but it now covers liquor, too. The annual collection of $1,375 is one-third of what the TSA spent last year on alcohol entertaining board members, their guests and other community leaders and potential clients in the suite.
Two current board members, Marchetti and Kalyn Brandewie, were on the board in 2005 when spending on food and alcohol was curbed. Neither responded to requests for comment on why the board reversed course. Marchetti, through a TSA spokesman, deferred to Hart.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, also a board member, did not respond to multiple phone calls.
The city of St. Petersburg, which owns Tropicana Field, is guaranteed a suite to every Tampa Bay Rays home game. On occasion, the city will pick up the tab when hosting a delegation or prospective business, said Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman. Otherwise, city council members and employees who receive free tickets to the game must pay for any food or beverage purchases.
"The way we have it seems to serve the city's needs and the taxpayer as well," Kirby said.
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Board members did not receive free tickets to the sold-out college football championship game. However, they were offered the opportunity to purchase tickets in the TSA suite at face value.
Each ticket was $850, plus a $50 service charge, though that charge went toward the catering bill, bringing it down to $2,667.
On secondary markets, even cheaper seats to the game — which attracted the largest crowd in Raymond James Stadium history — sold for more than $1,000. According to StubHub, suite tickets sold on its site for as much as $2,295.
Eight of 11 TSA board members took advantage of the offer.
One of them, Andy Scaglione, gave a ticket to Realtors PAC, a political action committee he's involved with. The PAC then sold the ticket to the highest bidder. The winner attended the game in the TSA suite and was free to eat and drink on the taxpayer's dime.
Scaglione didn't see any problems with the arrangement.
"I didn't personally sell it," he said.
The TSA doesn't have a policy for how board members distribute their allotment of tickets, nor does the TSA track who they bring into the suite.
Hart said they're intended to be used to "benefit the community and benefit the Tampa Sports Authority."
Reddick, who requested 16 tickets last year but said he rarely attends games himself, provided a list of individuals who received his tickets to Bucs games in 2016. Three of them, George Greenlee, Marvin Martin and Cedric McCray, had donated to his campaign in the past.
"I give them to my constituents," Reddick said. "They call me all the time and ask if they can go."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.