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Bucs blackouts have one Hillsborough group seeing red, demanding change

TAMPA — Hillsborough County taxpayers spend millions of dollars every year paying off construction and operating costs for Raymond James Stadium.

Yet when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field for their eighth and final regular season home game on Sunday, Joe Bucs Fan once again won't be able to catch the playoff push on television. Like each of the seven home games before it, this one will be blacked out because the stadium is not sold out.

There's at least one obscure little governmental body that feels your indignation. Its members want to do something to salve it.

The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board voted 7-2 this week to send a message to the Buccaneers and the Glazer family that owns them: Get the games televised next season or else.

Or else what? Or else we'll try to get some of those millions in taxpayer subsidies back. Or at least we'll rattle sabers at the Bucs.

"I hope the Glazers come to their senses and start thinking about the community where they're getting a lot of free money for a free stadium," said Ralph Fisher, a member of Hillsborough County's Charter Review Board, who initiated the idea. "We're paying an enormous amount of money each year to service the debt on that stadium, and the community cannot watch games on TV?"

It's a symbolic gesture to be sure, maybe a little quixotic even. It comes from a little-known body with few powers, none of which involve taking back money from the Buccaneers.

But board members do have a bully pulpit, and this week decided to use it.

The Charter Review Board is convened every five years to consider governance issues in Hillsborough County, its 14 members appointed by county commissioners. In the past year, its members have debated issues ranging from whether the county should have a mayor to the job duties of the county's auditor.

On Monday, they decided to do something of consequence in this football town.

What they did, with some members absent and one abstaining because her law firm represents the Bucs, is ask county commissioners do something about the blackouts. Commissioners should start by revisiting government agreements with the Bucs to get a better deal for the public if games are blacked out in the future.

County commissioners can't really do that. But they do appoint some members of the Tampa Sports Authority, the governmental body that is actually party to that agreement on behalf of taxpayers.

Eric Hart, executive director of the agency, said that's not likely to happen. The Bucs would have to agree to open talks. And there's nothing really to revisit, he said, since the agreement does not contemplate blackouts caused by a policy from the National Football League, not the team.

"I completely appreciate where the community is at," Hart said. "But we have a contract. And there are no terms in the contract that even address this."

A Bucs spokesman similarly said the team has no control over the policy, which has been in place since the 1970s to encourage attendance at games. He said the team warned fans of the likelihood of blackouts, offered ticket deals, installment plans for season-ticket purchases and free fan events.

"What most people understand is that this is a league rule and also that these circumstances are the product of a downturn in the economy," said Jonathan Grella, the team's director of communications. "Certainly, we understand the frustration born out of economic hard times and the inability to watch certain games on TV."

Fisher, a Lutz lawyer who described himself as a casual Bucs fan, noted that the team bought unsold tickets last season and can't understand why it didn't again this season. Since the team gets most of the money from ticket sales, it'd essentially be paying itself and enjoying added concession sales.

For many games this season, there have been more than 20,000 unsold tickets in a stadium that seats 65,000. And the team must share 34 percent of the value of general admission tickets with its opponent, whether it gives them away or not.

"It's an unsustainable practice" to buy up vacant seats, Grella said.

Voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 1996, a portion of which pays off the debt incurred to build the $154 million stadium. County commissioners have pledged tens of millions more in hotel bed taxes for stadium upkeep.

Because of the terms of the agreement, taxpayers fork over millions more each year — last year it was about $2.1 million — to underwrite operations at Raymond James Stadium because most profits flow to the Buccaneers. Those details still stick in the craw of opponents of the sales tax hike.

And now fans can't even watch the games?

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Bucs blackouts have one Hillsborough group seeing red, demanding change 12/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 24, 2010 9:51am]
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