For the past 15 years, Virgil Sweet usually knew what to expect when his annual season ticket invoice arrived from the Buccaneers.
There would be a small rise in the price of his seats. Standard stuff, he figured.
Never had Sweet of Belleair Bluffs felt the kind of sticker shock that jolted him like this year's 30 percent increase.
"We've always had an increase," he said. "But up until this year, the increase hasn't been nearly this dramatic. This has to be the biggest increase ever. They sure picked a bad economic time to do this."
His two seats in Section 218 of Raymond James Stadium went from $76 to $99 each, making it a $460 increase this season for eight regular-season and two preseason games. Sweet said his financial situation would permit him to renew. But his strong
convictions on the subject did not.
"I gave this a lot of thought," said the semiretired Realtor. "But it truly wasn't a matter of money at all. It was about principle."
Others say they were priced out, which is to say the decision was made for them. Regardless, the increases have been met by opposition from many longtime ticket holders. Some general seating has increased as much 33 percent. Most lower-bowl seats are $99 — $23 per game more than in 2007, when the tickets already were among the most expensive in the NFL.
Further complicating the matter are the expirations of thousands of charter season ticket holder contracts, agreements signed before the opening of RJS in 1998. Those who elect not to renew will receive the remainder of their deposits, which for some fans is substantial depending on the number of seats purchased.
Whatever their ultimate decisions, season ticket holders agree it was a painful choice.
Scott Ross of Tarpon Springs attended the franchise's first game and chose to renew his two 45-yard line seats, but not without much deliberation.
"I could spend my money a lot smarter than this paying off my credit cards," he said. "But I couldn't do it. Once you get off the merry-go-round, you'll probably never get back on. I just remember hearing about all those fans in Green Bay who have been waiting for tickets since the '60s. I don't want to be like that. & But I'll say it's starting to really add up."
Bill English of Bradenton renewed and said, "No one's holding a gun to people's heads. You have to make the choice."
The Bucs are pinning their hopes on fans such as Ross and English. As of last year, the team claimed a waiting list in excess of 100,000 requests.
The Bucs won't disclose how many season ticket holders failed to renew by March 6 — when the first installment was due — but it's clear a number of fans are voicing their displeasure. Some say they have fired off critical letters and e-mails, with others making repeated phone calls to protest.
Bill Cooper of Oldsmar did not renew his four tickets because, "I'm sick of paying (full price) for preseason games. You see the starters for one quarter and then it's our bums versus their bums. And you know what? I want my deposit back. It was promised to me."
That has been a sticking point for many of the stadium's original season ticket holders. The team is not refunding deposits to those who renew, even if their 10-year commitments have expired. Instead, it will continue to refund the money in increments of 5 percent per year while requiring new three-year commitments.
The Bucs aren't alone in their decision to raise prices, said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago sports consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd.: "What's happening in Tampa is happening in a lot of other cities."
But the Bucs' increases are higher than most.
The Bears, for example, announced increases of $3 to $4 on non-club level seating last month. The Lions announced increases of more than 18 percent, but in 2007 they had the league's eighth-cheapest average, according to a study by marketing firm Team Marketing Report. That same study said the Bucs had the eighth-highest average, $72.44. They are likely to rank higher in 2008.
Ganis said owners are making less profit with the current collective bargaining agreement, under which there has been a sharp rise in player salaries.
Air Force retiree Dick Bigelow of Valrico has little sympathy for the richest sports league in the world, with the average team worth some $957-million, according to Forbes.com. He spent his ticket money on a 46-inch LCD television after weathering increases for six consecutive years.
"Enough is enough," he said.
Around the NFL
DENVER — Titans running back LenDale White was cited with destruction of property, disobedience to a lawful order/interference and resistance.
Police spokeswoman Sharon Hahn said Sunday that the 23-year-old Denver native was cited shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday. She didn't have details of what led to the citation, which was first reported by KUSA-TV.
White was cited near a downtown club that was throwing a party in his honor Friday night. He had a team-best 1,110 yards rushing last season for Tennessee.
TEXANS: Receiver Jacoby Jones was arrested and accused of driving while intoxicated, police said. He posted $500 bond and was released.
VIKINGS: Receiver Robert Ferguson, an unrestricted free agent, returned with a one-year contract for close to $1-million.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com. Times wires contributed to this report.