Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Hooper: Tampa, are we just not a good sports town?

New York Yankees batter Alfonso Soriano hit back-to-back home runs off Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price last week and the crowd roared with approval.

In Tropicana Field.

In St. Petersburg.

In Tampa Bay.

Yes, fans of the visiting Yankees ruled the night. They may not have outnumbered the Rays faithful, but they out-shouted them. It's difficult to conceive such a scene at any other major-league team's home field.

Yet, it didn't come as a surprise. The dominance of out-of-town fans really is nothing new. You find a throng of Red Wings fans at the Tampa Bay Times Forum every time Detroit visits the Tampa Bay Lightning, and you get inundated by Saints followers whenever New Orleans plays the Tampa Bay Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.

And maybe it's more than just an annoyance. Maybe it's symptomatic of a larger characteristic about our area. Maybe it's time to ask a nagging question that few seem to want to face:

Are we a good sports town?

Plenty of Rays lovers who live in Tampa insist the team will draw more fans if a new stadium went up in the Channel District. After wading through 45 minutes of traffic on my way to the Yankees game — just to reach the Hillsborough entrance to the Howard Frankland Bridge — I want to believe a relocation might make a difference.

But would it really?

Maybe the team would struggle on either side of the bay. Maybe attendance lags for the Rays and Bucs because the economic dollars in the community won't stretch far enough to support three major franchises.

Or maybe we just don't care enough to go to every game or even a lot of games.

Usually when our teams contend and compete, we show up in droves. In the Bucs' heyday, seats proved scarce and the team boasted a waiting list. But when ticket prices went up and the economy went down, attendance began to bottom and it still hasn't recovered.

The University of South Florida football team's fortunes followed a similar path. When the Bulls climbed into the nation's Top 10, crowds filled Raymond James. But its tailspin into mediocrity has resulted in embarrassing numbers.

And we won't even talk about USF basketball, another program that draws more visiting fans than hometown supporters — when it's lucky.

In a great sports town, fans show up win or lose, seemingly adhering to the legendary code of letter carriers. In this town, I fear to think what would happen if our spectators had to fight through snow or rain or gloom of night.

A lot of factors unique to this area impact attendance: a transplant-based population, fixed-income retirees, great weather, multiple diversions, lack of corporate headquarters and average salaries. I wouldn't dismiss any of those and I might top the list with lack of convenient public transportation — a factor that helps explain why television ratings are relatively high compared with attendance.

But the one aspect rarely discussed on talk radio and seldom written about on the sports pages is that this area seems to lack an over-the-top fervor you find in more tradition-laden sports towns. It's an intangible that's difficult to define, but fan derives from the word fanatic, and I'm not sure we truly are.

Even more alarming, the one base that embodied that intangible has waned in recent years. Attendance quietly has declined at University of Florida football games and, up until last year's national title season, Florida State endured some turnstile turmoil and still struggles to sell out games against lesser opponents.

I've spent a number of years defending Tampa Bay and the state's sports passion (except for woeful Miami, of course) to out-of-towners. I'll continue to do so. We might do well, however, to embrace a little introspection and gauge our excitement for sports.

I think we're a quart low.

That's all I'm saying.

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