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Where are the Bucs fans? Not at RJS

Let's go back to last Sunday.

The Bucs went into their game having won four in a row, their longest win streak in four years.

They were 6-4, good enough to be in the postseason discussion and good enough that Sports Illustrated's power rankings had them at No. 10.

They were playing an attractive opponent, the 9-1 Falcons, who happen to be one of the Bucs' biggest rivals. The weather was perfect: sunny and a comfortable 70 degrees with zero chance of rain.

And the Bucs still didn't come close to selling out Raymond James Stadium.

The game was blacked out locally, meaning 85 percent of the nonpremium seats (or about 44,000 of those tickets) were not sold 72 hours before the game. It was the 19th blackout in the past 22 home games.

Considering the win streak, the opponent and the weather, you can't help but wonder: If fans in Tampa Bay aren't going to go to that game, which games will they go to?

As I noticed all the empty seats at Raymond James Stadium last Sunday, here are three thoughts that popped into my head.

1. This problem might not have a solution.

In six home games, the Bucs are averaging 54,057 fans, the fewest in the NFL. They are playing to 82.3 percent capacity, second worst in the league, ahead of only Miami.

The Bucs, before the season, reduced prices on 80 percent of their general admission tickets. They introduced 12-month payment plans and half-season passes. They offered fan-friendly wrinkles such as free Wi-Fi and enhanced instant replays.

They are winning games. They have affordable (by NFL standards) ticket prices, and they play an exciting brand of football.

So what gives?

The excuses are plenty. The economy is bad. No one is from here. It's better to stay home and watch the games on big-screen HD televisions.

Well, the economy hit Detroit hard, too, and the Lions are playing to 99 capacity. Arizona is a transient place, too, and the Cardinals are playing to 96 percent capacity. Most people have nice TVs, but 27 of the NFL's 32 teams are playing to more than 90 percent capacity.

Even in a bad economy, this area should be big enough that 60,000 people go to games. Seems to me that short of giving tickets away, there's nothing else the Bucs can do to bring in more fans.

2. The blackouts are deserved.

I don't want to hear that the Glazers should bail out the area by buying up tickets to avoid the blackouts. It's their job to sell tickets, not buy them. The Glazers are just like any other business owner. They have the right to sell their product for a profit.

Honestly, think about what you're asking. You want the Glazers to buy up tickets so that a bunch of other people can watch the game for free. In fact, when you think about it, fans are fortunate that sold out games are televised for free. You don't see the latest James Bond movie on your television for nothing if the movie theater is sold out.

Besides, the Glazers have stepped up in the past, eating tickets to avoid blackouts.

And let's not forget that the Bucs were the first team to accept the NFL's offer of eliminating blackouts if only 85 instead of 100 percent of the tickets were sold 72 hours prior to kickoff even though that switch costs the Glazers money.

None of this has worked. The team still can't avoid blackouts. Do you expect the Glazers to keep swallowing tickets and making concessions, especially when it has no effect on tickets sales?

3. The Rays are watching.

If I'm Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, I'm looking at Sunday's Bucs game and here's what I'm thinking:

The Bucs poured gobs of money into free agency, spending more than $140 million in the offseason to bring in Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. They have a new coach, a new attitude and have put together a winning product. Their tickets prices remain among the most affordable in the NFL. They play in a stadium that is centrally located in the area and is considered among the best in the NFL.

And they still can't draw fans.

If I'm Sternberg, I'm wondering if this area can support my team no matter how good it is and where the stadium is located.

Oh, I did have one more thought.

Some people can't afford to go to games. I understand that. Some choose not to go. That's their right. I would never tell someone how to spend their money. And I'm not suggesting that fans don't care.

But this is not a good sports market. Not at the moment, anyway.

Television ratings are nice. So is buying jerseys and hats. But ultimately, a market is judged by how it supports its teams in person. Right now, the Bucs do not have Tampa Bay's support.

You can try to argue that point, but the empty seats at Raymond James Stadium say otherwise.

Where are the Bucs fans? Not at RJS 11/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 9:04pm]
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