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Bucs' blackout all about the bucks

Dozens of seats remain empty moments before the opening kickoff last August when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took on the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. The Glazers prevented blackouts last year by buying up remaining tickets.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2009)

Dozens of seats remain empty moments before the opening kickoff last August when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took on the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. The Glazers prevented blackouts last year by buying up remaining tickets.

TAMPA

Earlier this year, the Bucs announced the cost of buying tickets had gone down.

All these months later, they have revealed the cost of not buying those tickets has gone way up.

The Buccaneers announced Tuesday that Saturday's preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium has not sold out and, as a consequence, will be blacked out on local television. It will be the first time in nearly 13 years a Bucs game will not air live in Tampa Bay.

That means if you are beginning your freshman year of college this month, you were entering kindergarten the last time a Bucs game was blacked out. The Devil Rays had not yet hired Larry Rothschild as their first manager, and Raymond James Stadium was not yet built.

That means a streak of 261 consecutive games — preseason, regular season and postseason — live on local television is about to end.

And it means the price of loyalty has, once again, become an issue for a sports fan in Tampa Bay.

Regrettably, this is the reality of major-league sports. It is why seven Jaguars games were blacked out in Jacksonville, the NFL team's home, last year. It is why hundreds of millions of dollars in public money is being spent in South Florida to build a new baseball stadium for the Marlins. And it is why NBA fans in Seattle no longer have a team to call their own.

You see, games are limited strictly to the field of play. Everywhere else, sports is a business. And that is essentially the divide between how we perceive our teams and how the teams perceive us. You consider yourself a fan. They consider you a customer.

It is not pleasant, and it is not endearing. But it is, ultimately, the way of the world.

So shout, if you must. Throw out your jerseys, and scrape off your bumper stickers. Just understand that the Bucs' owners, the Glazers, are in this for a profit, and that means they can't afford to let revenues sit in a pile in the ticket window.

Truth be told, the Buccaneers had already postponed this inevitability. Several regular-season games should have been blacked out last season, but the Glazers instead announced them as sellouts. This must have cost them money when it came to splitting gate receipts with visiting teams, and it probably cost them goodwill with the league for skirting blackout rules.

But you can't go on hiding 15,000 empty seats forever.

"Last season, this and other clubs helped prevent blackouts by purchasing remaining tickets," team spokesman Jonathan Grella wrote in an e-mail Tuesday afternoon. "But realistically, it's not a sustainable practice, here or elsewhere."

Turns out, Tampa Bay is not alone in this televised wasteland. Blackouts more than doubled in the NFL last season, and as much as one-third of the league's teams either fell short of sellouts or required special circumstances to avoid blackouts. A blackout is required for a 75-mile radius around a stadium if the game does not sell out 72 hours before kickoff.

In 2008 the league blacked out nine regular season games or 3.5 percent of the total. Last season that number jumped to 22, or 8.6 percent, and that doesn't include 20 percent of preseason games being blacked out

So, yes, the Bucs have known this day was probably coming. Joel Glazer pretty much announced it in March when he revealed that the team's season ticket base was in the 40,000 range. The combination of too many disappointing seasons and the harshness of the economy in Florida practically made blackouts a foregone conclusion even as the team lowered ticket prices.

Once, the NFL was competing with other sports and activities for your entertainment dollars. Now, the league is competing with mortgage and car payments.

Of course, you could argue that the Bucs had this coming. That the team did not spend enough money on payroll in recent seasons. And you could complain that far more money is generated by the league's TV deal than ticket sales.

But that doesn't change the reality that the NFL has used the threat of blackouts to sell tickets since 1973. And as recently as the 1990s, the league had blackouts for 31 percent of its games.

"It's critical to bear in mind that the NFL has maintained a strict blackout policy for decades," Grella wrote. "Its policy is unique amongst professional sports leagues, and it is designed to encourage attendance. We understand that families are struggling these days, so we have tried to create affordable ticketing options.

"Whether they can make it out to the games or not, we know they are still Bucs fans, and we love them for it."

The truth is, after all these years, the Bucs needed Saturday's preseason game to be blacked out. They needed fans to understand the possible cost of unpurchased tickets as the regular season grows near.

They may appreciate your devotion, but they still want your dollars.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Bucs' blackout all about the bucks 08/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 8:10am]

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