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Wide open space at Raymond James for Tampa Bay Bucs opener

TAMPA

For those Bucs fans who did show up for the game Sunday, it was quite a different experience at Raymond James Stadium (and no, not just because Tampa Bay won 17-14 over the Browns). With an actual turnstile count of 41,554 — more than 24,000 short of its 65,600 capacity — Sunday was the club's first regular-season television blackout since 1997. Some sections were nearly empty, there was plenty of room to tailgate in the parking lots, and there were smaller lines on the concourse. And that takes into consideration a noticeable number of Browns fans. But the players said they appreciated the fans who stayed through the rain, witnesses to the Bucs' fourth-quarter comeback. "The true fans were here, and they were loud as can be and really into the game," guard Davin Joseph said. "I was proud of the fans that did come. I hope we made their day. "It seemed like everyone from end zone to end zone, from sideline to sideline, it was exciting to see. Even though it might not have been sold out, it still felt good to see those guys out there cheering us on."

Uncharted territory

The stands weren't the only places with less people Sunday afternoon. Fewer ticket takers, ushers, cleaning and security staff were scheduled, according to Mickey Farrell, director of operations for the Tampa Sports Authority.

"For us, we're in uncharted territory," he said.

Farrell, who has been with TSA since 1987, said that for many seasons — when sellouts were commonplace — it was easier to schedule staffing for Raymond James Stadium, which opened in 1998. Typically, there will be around 3,000 employees for a sellout game.

But with the crowd expected to be between 42,00 to 52,000, Farrell said TSA officials had to estimate how much to scale back the staff. He said once the game began and a more accurate reflection of the attendance (and no-shows) was available, more workers were sent home.

But Farrell also had to deal with another twist for a Bucs game: walk-up ticket buyers.

Tickets, anyone?

James Price of Tampa said he hadn't been to a Bucs game in five years; watching it at home was definitely more comfortable, especially on a 90-plus degree day. But with the game blacked out on local television, Price, 39, was in a lengthy line by the ticket counter an hour before gametime. Fans lined up at least 20 to 25 deep, waiting for what has been a rare opportunity.

"It's nice to be able to walk up and get tickets," he said.

Some fans said that when they got to the front the cheapest tickets were $75 to $100. So they turned to the scalpers, which proved to be a significant challenge because there weren't many.

Steve Preiss, a 44-year-old Browns fan who lives in Palm Harbor, said his friend bought a ticket in the third row around the 50-yard line for $50 from a scalper.

"The (tickets) are all at the box office," said David Hicks, a 44-year-old Tampa native who had been a season ticket holder since the "Big Sombrero" days of Tampa Stadium until this season. "In other years, you could have gotten anything you wanted (from scalpers) for 20 to 30 bucks."

Room to roam

Bill Bresnahan of Tampa has been a Bucs season ticket holder since 1976 and said he has missed just three games since. He can even remember the opponents: the Vikings, Bengals and Dolphins (a preseason game).

But Bresnahan, 58, could never remember having so much room for his pregame tailgating. Bresnahan's group of six was in a near-empty part of the parking lot, about 75 yards away from the stadium. They could have fit a few houses in the space they had to spread out.

"This is definitely a deserted planet right now," he said. "I could tell it's bad because the guys in the orange shirts that run up to you to tell you where to park, they're like, 'Park wherever you want.' They're getting indifferent too, even the staff. So that's not a good sign."

Pat Dotson, 31, a parking lot attendant in Bresnahan's lot, has worked for the TSA for about 16 years and said he hasn't seen anything like it in a long time. "This is so slow," he said. "Usually our lot is full by now, honestly."

No lines, no problems

Those fans who were in the stands found it an enjoyable, even somewhat relaxing, experience (other than the heat, of course). There were several empty benches in the typically busy end zone area, where fans found seating in the shade under the palm trees. Lines at the concession and merchandise stands were shorter, and for some bathrooms, nonexistent.

"The lines are nothing, sitting down, there's nobody in front of you," said Shirley Pope, 40, of Tampa. "I didn't have to wait in line as of yet (for the bathroom); by now, usually I'd be waiting 20-30 minutes. It's kind of a nice experience to go to the bathroom and not have to wait."

So longer bathroom lines at home? "Oh yeah," she said, laughing. "With two boys, absolutely."

Leg room aplenty

Scott Johnson and Susan Long had most of Section 244 to themselves, so they laid back, with their legs resting on the empty seats in front of them. Long's 9-year-old son, Nick, was playing in the youth football game at halftime, and with about 10 empty rows in front of them, the view was unobstructed. Johnson, a 42-year-old Zephyrhills resident who has gone to games since 1976, said he called Saturday to see if they could get three tickets across the aisle in Section 233, and was surprised when they were available.

"Look at all the good seats empty, that's crazy," he said. "When I was here for U2, it wasn't like this. It was packed."

Reaching out

Steve and Leslie Coleman of Tampa were waiting in line at the will call window before the game for a different reason; the first-year season ticket holders received an e-mail two weeks ago from the Bucs saying they had been upgraded to club seats. "It's to get you in the door," Steve said. "I guarantee I'll get an e-mail or call next week, 'Hey, you want to upgrade?' "

He said a reason they got season tickets is that the Bucs are allowing them to make payments over a six-month period, and the team is not requiring deposits or contracts on club seats. The Bucs have also made refillable sodas and combination meals available, and have a $25 youth season ticket and a $35 single-game ticket.

For the Colemans, season tickets that are $890 apiece are now spread out for about $200 monthly payments. "That's fair," he said.

The fans 'will be back'

Matt Elflein, 43, a season ticket holder since 1989, boasts plenty of perspective. Having broken his neck about six years ago, Elflein rolls his wheelchair up to his seats for each game in Section 150, behind the end zone. Elflein said, like many fans, he didn't let the empty seats — and large contingent of Browns fans — stop him from enjoying the win. And he says the bigger crowds will return, once the victories do.

"I'm very disappointed," he said. "I've had tickets for 23 years, I've sat through some hard games. But when (the Bucs) are good, everybody wants to be on our bandwagon. And when they're not, it's like, 'Oh, see ya.' It's a little pricey, but where else can you go on a Sunday afternoon and enjoy this?

"Believe me, when they start winning again, (fans) will be back."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Wide open space at Raymond James for Tampa Bay Bucs opener 09/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 9:41pm]

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