J.C. De La Torre was all but out.
A Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticket holder since 1998, De La Torre grew more and more frustrated watching the Bucs mail it in last season. Just as importantly, he said, it felt like the team was taking its dwindling fan base for granted.
"I was just really fed up with the organization and the direction they were going," said De La Torre, 39. "The fan experience had gotten kind of stale. With the stadium half empty and the team not performing on the field, it was one of those things where it just wasn't fun anymore."
Every year, more fans seem to agree. The Bucs drew 56,614 fans per home game in 2011, down from 65,316 in 2007. It's reflective of an NFL-wide trend — attendance as a whole is down 4.5 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal — but Bucs fans feel it more acutely. Due to the NFL's attendance-governed blackout rules, six of the Bucs' home games last year were blacked out on local TV. All eight regular-season home games were blacked out in 2010.
Now, under rookie coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs have two goals this season: (1) Make the playoffs, and (2) win back fans like De La Torre.
It started this offseason, when the team laid out an incentive-laden package for season ticket holders. De La Torre, an IT worker from Wesley Chapel who writes about the team on BucsNation.com, says he received everything from VIP access during training camp to discounts on tickets, merchandise and food and drink. They even threw in a free Buccaneers flag.
"It kind of proved to the fan base that they actually did care," he said. "They're trying their best."
Football is the most talked-about, over-analyzed and indisputably popular autumn pastime in all the land. But it's no mystery why league attendance has been on a downswing.
In 2011, it cost an average of $378.28 for a family of four to attend a Buccaneers game (along with food, drinks and souvenirs), according to Team Marketing Report. That's well below the league average of more than $427, but it still ain't cheap — especially when it costs virtually nothing to watch the game in high definition, while eating whatever you like, from the air-conditioned comfort of your couch. (De La Torre, for example, is frequently tempted to stay home and watch games on his 106-inch home theater.)
The Bucs can count on 35,000 diehard fans to come to every game, no matter what. It's those next 25,000 casual fans they now need to reach.
How are they doing it? By getting creative with ticket prices, technology and more at Raymond James Stadium. Among the new features fans can expect in 2012:
For the opener, an all-out blitz. The Buccaneers have gone all-out to try to ensure Sunday's season opener against the Carolina Panthers is a sellout. They'll offer free parking and half-price concessions (excluding alcohol), along with certain tickets discounted to $30 and $15 (for kids). It'll also be the 200th consecutive start by cornerback Ronde Barber, a milestone the Bucs will honor with a free gym sack giveaway.
Fewer blackouts. Well, hopefully fewer blackouts. In the past, the Bucs had to sell 100 percent of their non-premium tickets in order to prevent a home game from being blacked out. This season, they and a few other teams have lowered that threshold to 85 percent. However, this week, they were still short of meeting that goal for Sunday's home opener against Carolina.
Wireless Internet. The NFL has announced plans to outfit every stadium with free Wi-Fi by the 2013-14 season. The Bucs are jumping on the bandwagon early, offering free wireless Internet at RayJay starting this season. If you're logged onto the RayJay Wi-Fi network, you can use the official Buccaneers app to "view live streaming feeds of the game from multiple camera angles." Want to keep tabs on the rest of the league? Verizon subscribers with the NFL Mobile app can stream the NFL RedZone channel on gamedays.
More replays. The team brought in a Super Bowl-caliber production company to man its new replay system, featuring more cameras installed around the field so fans can get a better view of what just happened. And for the first time, the Stadium's big screen will show the same "under the hood" replays that referees see on sideline monitors during challenges.
A mini-Gasparilla. In a city that loves pirate parades, this almost makes too much sense. Prior to each home kickoff, the team will send a "Bucsparilla" float through RayJay tailgate areas. Look for mascot Captain Fear and his cronies to toss beads and other goodies to fans.
More customer service. The team is adding dozens of staffers around Raymond James, and adding new guest-relations stations in Quads A and C. Additionally, the club level will open an hour earlier and close an hour later than in 2011.
New social-media strategy. The Bucs turned to Mutt Industries, of Portland, Ore., to create a slick new social network called "It's a Bucs Life" (itsabucslife.com). The site allows fans to cluster together in "krewes," share photos and video on Twitter and Instagram, read stories and blog posts from both fans and the team, and more. It's a Bucs Life has only been around a few weeks, but there are already more than 30 krewes.
Chris Pribbenow was among the first to join from Atlanta's 800-member ATL Bucs fan club. "If it can get anybody from all over the world to bring us all together and get a big, strong fan following," Pribbenow said, "that's what we need."
De La Torre, for one, is excited by the changes he's seen so far. Re-energizing the Bucs' fan base may come down to wins and losses, he said, but all of these little touches are adding up.
"If they continue on this path, I think we'll come back," he said.
Information from the Wall Street Journal and tbt* files was used in this report.