TAMPA — For legions of fans across the Tampa Bay region, Sunday afternoons in the fall used to be spent watching the Buccaneers.
For the past 13 years, fans could tune into the Bucs on local television without interruption, enjoying the wins and enduring the losses, yelling at their Sonys and tossing remotes while riding the usual roller coaster of emotions.
TV blackouts are the new norm here and will be for the foreseeable future. NFL policy bans games from local television within a 75-mile radius when they aren't sold out 72 hours before kickoff. Yet based on the uninspired turnouts at Raymond James Stadium despite the blackouts, it's fair to question whether this long-standing policy actually has its intended effect.
Some say no.
"To be honest with you, I'm hearing animosity," said sports talk show host Steve Duemig, whose afternoon show on WDAE-AM 620 is the area's most popular.
"I just think it's kind of a tough-love approach," said Jon Greenberg, executive editor for Team Marketing Report, a company that publishes sports marketing research. "Do fans feel sorry for the team? No. They just don't go. Not everyone's lives revolve around the team."
When the Bucs play the Rams on Sunday, a blackout will be in place for the fourth time in four regular-season Bucs home games. And though Bucs officials have repeatedly said they expect all eight home games to fall short of sellouts, there's no evidence it has resulted in a dash to the box office.
The reason for the policy, according to the league: to create greater demand for the in-stadium product — something that's tough to do when fans can watch comfortably from their dens without buying tickets that average $76 leaguewide.
The Bucs don't provide much specific ticket data, and the club declined to comment for this story. But the team's season-ticket base is believed to be around 40,000 in a stadium that seats 65,000.
So even with the Bucs entering last Sunday's game with a surprising 3-1 record, and with the Super Bowl champion Saints coming to town, the team announced 51,759 tickets sold, meaning relatively few spectators purchased single-game tickets.
And that was still better than the announced crowd of 47,211 that paid to see the season opener against the Browns.
So, is the policy working? Is the potential for apathy worth the risk?
Opinions vary. Absolutes are scarce.
"In the past, when the Bucs would lose, we'd get a week's worth of calls," said Duemig. "This week, I told the audience, here it is, Tuesday, and you don't even want to talk about the Bucs. There was absolutely no one on the line to talk about the Bucs. It has to be because they're not able to watch the games."
Some defend the league's policy.
"For nearly 50 years now, there's been a feeling (from the NFL) that the fan experience is paramount," said sports business veteran Rick Horrow, a CNN commentator, author and lecturer at Harvard University.
"Any device to protect the attendance is critical. … I think it's effective. It drives fans to take the extra step. But it's very controversial."
So much so that Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wrote to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last month asking him to reconsider the blackout policy, given the nation's economic struggles.
The NFL defends the policy and says no changes are expected.
"The policy, which has been in place for several decades, strikes a balance between encouraging fans to attend games and allowing the games to continue to be broadcast on free television," said Dan Masonson, NFL director of corporate communications. "Playing in full stadiums is an important part of what makes NFL football an exciting and special entertainment event."
The number of blackouts is up 50 percent vs. a year ago (nine this year through the first six weeks, versus six at this point last season), while in Oakland, the Raiders have had their last 10 games blacked out.
As they did several times last season, when crowds clearly were not at capacity, the Bucs have the option of buying up unsold non-premium seats by paying 34 cents on the dollar — the visiting team's ticket revenue share — to satisfy the league's requirements. That would be enough to ensure a "sellout" and get the blackout lifted.
But given the large number of unsold tickets this season, taking advantage of the loophole would be an expensive practice to continue, one the Bucs no longer plan to use.
The diminishing ticket sales are somewhat ironic, considering the NFL has never enjoyed more popularity. Television ratings are hitting record levels, merchandise sales are strong and fantasy football has become an obsession for millions. There's probably never been a bigger appetite for pro football, making the NFL an enterprise with $8 billion in annual revenue.
However, the strained economy coupled with an enjoyable television viewing experience — the league's RedZone channel and a satellite TV package that features every game are wildly popular — have had a negative impact on attendance.
Greenberg's company recently released its 2010 NFL Fan Cost Index, which determined the Bucs' average ticket price was $72.10, slightly below the NFL's median price. Premium tickets, such as club seats, average $295, according to the report.
Another factor likely hurting the Bucs is their 3-13 record last season, which didn't help their offseason efforts to sell season tickets.
It all makes for a perfect storm that has led to the team's first blackouts since 1997, the year before Raymond James Stadium opened.
"It's the casual fan that delivers the big numbers," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "The face painters may still show up, but if you're (losing), the casual fan stays away."
But it's that casual fan that also is most likely to follow the team on television, rather than from the bleachers — a dilemma because it's exactly that sort of fan that teams risk losing during a series of blackouts.
"Fans covet exposure to the team," Horrow said. "And if you limit that exposure, you alienate the fan base."
Now, consider this worst-case scenario: With the NFL facing the possibility of a work stoppage next year because of slow labor negotiations, the Bucs face the prospect of a season's worth of blackouts followed by a darkened stadium in 2011. That would potentially bring about a whole new level of absolute indifference.
And once the games began again, more blackouts — and more debate — would be practically inevitable.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.