TAMPA — Just as the Bucs want a return to winning football under new coach Lovie Smith, the team is also working to move back up the NFL standings in another key area: attendance.
"We can't really control, and we can't be dependent upon, what happens on the field," said Brian Ford, the Bucs' chief operating officer. "I'm so excited about the level of play we're going to see, but from a business model standpoint, everything we're trying to do is to add value outside of wins and losses."
Fans are no longer season-ticket holders — they're "season-pass members," with access to not only home games but events like exclusive draft parties, closed practices, movie screenings and the unveiling of the team's new uniforms this spring.
In the past month, the Bucs have opened ticket offices in Orlando and Sarasota. Group sales programs reach in every direction — discounts offered to military personnel, Crossfit enthusiasts and the LGBT community. More than 10,000 tickets were sold last year through an ongoing fundraising program that gives area schools $5 from every ticket their students sell, with prizes to the most active schools.
In 2012, the Bucs ranked next-to-last in the NFL in both average attendance and percentage of capacity. Last year, despite a disappointing 4-12 record, the Bucs saw a 7 percent rise in attendance, to an average of 58,818, sliding up two spots in the league rankings. It's still well short of the sustained capacity crowds Tampa Bay had until attendance dropped 25 percent after the 2009 season.
"On game day, we need to make Raymond James Stadium that 12th man, that homefield advantage we grew accustomed to," Ford said. "We want to get back to that."
That 2013 rise came as the Bucs took an extra step to make sure home games wouldn't be blacked out from local TV broadcasts. If an NFL game hasn't sold 85 percent of its non-premium seats 72 hours before kickoff, it isn't shown on local TV — a move designed to keep fans in the seats and not just watching at home. From 2010-12, 19 of 24 Bucs home games were blacked out locally.
NFL teams can avoid the blackout by "buying" unsold seats (at 34 cents on the dollar) to reach the 85 percent threshold, as the Bucs did last year and have committed to do again. Smith said the team's gesture was "very gratifying" as the Bucs work to draw in casual fans, even in living rooms.
"For our fans, we would like for everyone to come," he said. "Everyone can't come to a game, (so) to be able to watch it on TV too, it's important for us. We feel like we're going to put a good product on the field, and we want as many as possible to be able to watch."
Smith has seen how success on the scoreboard can impact the turnstiles — the greatest attendance leap in the Bucs' 40 seasons came after Smith's first year as an assistant in 1996, as Tampa Bay went from 6-10 to 10-6 and average attendance jumped from 41,669 a game to 67,939 in 1997.
Any major gains in attendance would likely coincide with a return to winning — the team has had one winning season in the past five years, and no playoff appearances since 2007.
With a new coach, new uniforms and an influx of new players, early indications are that attendance could continue to rise. Preseason games — which typically draw smaller crowds in August as stars play less, if at all — saw a modest upswing this year, with two home games drawing 7 percent more than a year ago.
Tuesday, as the team prepared for Sunday's season opener at home against Carolina, the reigning NFC South division champs, Bucs officials and players took questions from fans at a "Chalk Talk" luncheon sponsored by several local chambers of commerce, with a ballroom packed at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay.
"To all of our fans, call up somebody. Get them to come out. We can do this," Smith implored the audience. "We can bring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back. You're going to like your football team. … We can't wait. We will have a good product to put on the football field."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.