TAMPA — For Bucs fans inside club-level lounges or in dark sports bars with beer-lacquered floors Thursday, hope came in the form of a 6-foot-4, 295-pound man.
At Walters Press Box Sports Emporium in South Tampa, George Guito and Chris Pope arrived a couple hours early, picked out their usual bar stools and sat through two selections before they heard what they had waited months to hear on television:
"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle from Oklahoma."
Guito and Pope lifted their hands and cheered in anticipation of a team on the rise.
"It's been a down economy. Everyone's taking a beating," said Guito, an insurance broker and lifelong Bucs fan. "I really do hope they turn things around."
Most Thursdays, the couple would have been out to dinner. But on this day, they put on team shirts and pretended like it was football season — like millions of fans across the nation.
The NFL for the first time moved its annual draft to TV's biggest night: Primetime Thursday. Last year, the draft had more viewers than playoff hockey, playoff basketball and baseball, while viewership has increased 66 percent since 2001, the NFL says.
The draft is an event where nobody really wins or everyone does since players can't be judged until September. For fans of losing teams like the Bucs, the draft can feel as good as a Super Bowl appearance because many think their team just might find a savior on this day.
"For Buccaneers fans," said professor William Sutton, associate director of University of Central Florida's sports business management program, "this is Christmas, and you hope the present you get is a good one."
Hope is also what brought Jennifer Mira, 31, and her three kids to Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers held a draft party Thursday in its West Club Lounge. Fans could meet players and cheerleaders and watch the draft from two giant screens.
"We're all looking for an escape," Mira said. "Give me something positive to see so we don't have to focus on hard times."
Others said the draft feeds their NFL addiction during the dreariest of times: The offseason. Scores of fans wore jerseys and pirate hats to the stadium. A few painted their faces. Ben Stafford, 43, also at Ray Jay, compared the draft to a nibble of food for hibernating animals who have suffered a long winter.
"We've been starving for football for so long," Stafford said, though the Super Bowl was only about two months ago.
To non-football fans, the draft can seem like such an odd event, part beauty pageant (Tim Tebow), part reality show (Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains). For football fans, it's a spectacle that is both loved and detested for the months and months of lead up and mock drafts they have had to watch on ESPN.
"For starters, with its creepy slave-auction vibe and armies of drooling, flesh-peddling scouts, it has an excessive, perverted side that the drafts of other sports lack," Matt Taibbi wrote recently in Men's Journal.
But it's unavoidable for many, even spurned fans like Guito.
He had held Bucs season tickets since the team's inception until last year, when he canceled them. He was upset that ownership fired coach Jon Gruden. Guito had sat through the winless 1970s and seen the team rise to Super Bowl champions only to fall down the ladder.
He is skeptical of the team's young coach and inexperienced general manager and thinks the team's owners are cheap.
He has watched the team draft players who never live up to their potential, and he knows McCoy might not, too.
"I'm holding back judgment," his girlfriend Pope said.
But Guito feels differently. In McCoy, he sees Warren Sapp, a similar-sized player who helped lift the Bucs to glory last decade.
"I'm jazzed," he said. "We needed a defensive tackle. Someone who could get upfield."
As skeptical and disappointed as Guito might be of his team, he said, they are still his team until someone shovels dirt on him in death.
"It really does mark the beginning of the football season," he said of draft day.
And, for now, his team is undefeated.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.