TAMPA — Before Thursday's preseason game, a man in a Simeon Rice jersey walked in front of Gate D waving a fistful of Buccaneers tickets that were never meant to be sold.
A lot of the tickets Dennis Germaine, 25, a scalper for Total Event Tickets, was reselling came from people who got them free through the Bucs.
"They're giving away a lot," he said. "Every ticket I bought is a comp ticket."
He lifted up a ticket and pointed to the right corner where the price should be. It said "COMP" instead. He said he bought 16 of them before Thursday's game, more than he can remember.
The team routinely gave away free tickets to charities in the past. This year they gave some to fans who attended training camp as a thank you for their support, Bucs spokesman Jeff Kamis said.
Even so, the Bucs are facing slow ticket sales for the first time since Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998. In years past, it sold out regularly. No more.
In response, the team has taken the unprecedented steps of offering season ticket buyers monthly payment plans, seats that don't require deposits or long-term contracts and $32.50 upper level tickets for children.
The team's Web site is also advertising half-season packages that range between $260 and $325 a ticket.
The recession seems to be the primary culprit. That came along a year after the team missed the playoffs and raised ticket prices as much as 33 percent, and overhauled a roster that no longer includes quarterback Jeff Garcia, all-time great Derrick Brooks and fan favorite Warrick Dunn.
"It think it's affecting every area of business, not just the NFL," Kamis said.
Although Thursday's game met the NFL's sell-out requirement, thereby avoiding a local blackout of the nationally televised game, empty red seats were scattered throughout all three levels, and several suites were empty.
With the regular season opener about two weeks away, season and single-game tickets remain available at Raymond James, which has a capacity of 65,857.
On Ticketmaster on Thursday, tickets could even be found for the opener against the Dallas Cowboys, "America's Team."
"We're hopeful that we will sell out but it's too early to tell," Kamis said.
The new discount enticements were enough to attract George and Luanne Howe from Bradenton, Publix workers who snapped up season tickets for the first time.
"We're cheap. There was no waiting list. They waived a deposit for us and that's pretty cool," George Howe said.
Frank and Carol Bernard, upper-level season-ticket holders for more than a decade, said they were urged to upgrade their tickets for the first time, which surprised them. They turned down the offers because the seats they own are shaded, a valuable commodity when the team plays at 1 p.m.
Marnese Mitchell said some of her neighboring season ticket holders have abandoned their seats. The 50-year-old schoolteacher from Tampa has been a season ticket holder for 10 years, but had to start a payment plan to keep them for 2009.
"It's due to the economy," she said. "It's expensive."
Fan after fan on Thursday blamed the economy for the slow ticket sales, a phenomenon in other NFL markets as well.
Earlier this month, the San Diego Chargers warned fans that local television blackouts could be likely for home exhibition games and even some regular season games, something that hasn't happened since 2004.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver told the Florida Times-Union that the team needs to sell more than 14,000 tickets in a given week to lift regular-season blackouts, which seem inevitable.
Thursday night inside the Press Box, a South Tampa sports bar, former season ticket holders Scott and Danielle Ward enjoyed the game on the big screen as they nestled in their booth.
Danielle, 55, who owns Woody's of South Tampa restaurant, said they had season tickets since back when the Bucs played in the old Tampa Stadium, known affectionately as the "Sombrero," but gave up their seats two years ago.
"He bought a big screen TV … now we have Bucs parties instead," she said. "There's cold beer, good food and no parking."
Scott, 44 and vice president of a construction firm, said going to the games was pricey, costing nearly $200-a-ticket per week, not including food and parking.
"It just wasn't enough juice for the squeeze," Danielle said.
Scott said if the Bucs want them back, they're going to have to "make it more affordable. Three hundred to $400 a week is just too high."
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3368.