We are blessed at this moment with three professional sports teams that have been playing above expectations. Dollar for dollar, the Rays, the Lightning and the Buccaneers are outperforming their collective salaries and making us proud. Why is it then, that local fans of baseball and football have been spotted disguised as empty seats?
In the case of the Rays, we hear the problem is our stadium. The Trop, we are told, is dull and old, a concrete mausoleum in a bad neighborhood too close to the police station with nothing else to do nearby and too far from Tampa, requiring perilous journeys across a narrow bridge over shark-infested waters!
The only way for the Rays to compete against the super-rich Yankees and Red Sox, we are told, is to build a Taj Mahal of Base-Bahal in a location more central to the regional population, which, they say is in Hillsborough County. Where the Bucs play.
But wait. Isn't there something wrong with this equation? Didn't we just go through a Buccaneers regular season in which not a single home game sold out, creating television blackouts and spoiling our beer-swilling, chip-munching Sunday traditions?
Why weren't more fans moved to Sunday worship at Raymond James Stadium? There we have an exciting young team, playing for a dynamic young coach, that competed for the playoffs in one of the hardest divisions in the NFL, finishing the season with a surprising 10-6 record.
Where were the fans? And why weren't the wiseguys on ESPN talking smack about the football fans in Tampa the way they talked down all summer about Rays fans and St. Pete?
The Bucs are a mirror image of the Rays. Young, talented and outperforming their resources. And producing a lot of empty seats. How come? Isn't Florida a football state? Aren't there only eight home games to fill, not the 81 produced by a baseball season?
I can make a case (and I dare PolitiFact.com to check out this claim) that the Rays fans outperformed the Bucs fans in attendance, television audience, merchandise sales and enthusiasm.
So what's the problem? There is only one possible answer. Raymond James Stadium must suck as a sports venue. It has no roof, so fans must suffer through the tropical heat and humidity that smother early-season games. It is in a horrible location, unless you like auto dealers, strip malls and strip joints. Parking, concessions, ticket prices — all way too high, especially for a community mired in recession.
What we need is a new stadium. For football. Maybe something like the one that Jerry Jones built for his Dallas Cowboys. The Glazers can afford it. All they need to do is sell Manchester United. That will bring the fans in, for sure.
Hey, I've got an idea. Since pro football doesn't work in Hillsborough County, let's build a new stadium in Pinellas, maybe even in St. Pete. Maybe even at the site of Tropicana Field when it loses baseball to Tampa interests.
The failure of attendance for our football team this season casts a shadow on all the research and all the provincial arguments that point to a new baseball stadium as a solution to our attendance problems, especially in an environment of taxpayer cynicism and revolt, in an era when the American standard of living is likely to decline.
Face it, Tampa Bay. It's not the stadiums. It's not RayJay or the Trop. To borrow an old slogan used by African-Americans to describe white opposition to school desegregation: "It ain't the bus. It's us."
Roy Peter Clark is vice president of the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. He lives 5 miles from Tropicana Field.