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Empty seats don't sit well with Bucs

Everybody knows you don't scalp tickets at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games. You have to give them a shampoo, creme rinse and blow dry first to get rid of them.

Perhaps that's why, with only 31,000 season-ticket holders, the Bucs spend more time taking attendance than teachers do.

Even as Tampa Bay begins its staid drive to a possible NFC Central title, its fans have stayed away in droves. So it was nearly laughable last week when head coach Sam Wyche played crowd noise over loudspeakers during practice in preparation for today's game against the Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Stadium.

"We're expecting when (the Colts) have the ball, the crowd noise is going to be as loud as what we've had to put up with the last few weeks," Wyche said. "Our defense has to operate in that atmosphere. We're hoping it's going to be just deafening sound every time Indianapolis hits the field offensively.

"I'm so far ahead of the rest of the league. Who would have loudspeakers on for the defense, anticipating home-crowd noise?"

To be more precise, who would expect crowd noise at Tampa Stadium?

So far, the Bucs have received only gloved applause for their 3-1 start and first-place tie in the division. A win today over 9-point underdog Indianapolis would give Tampa Bay its best start since 1979 when the club went 5-0 en route to its first NFC Central title.

If the Bucs ever are going to persuade passengers to leap onto the bandwagon, it's right now _ before the wheels have a chance to come off.

But as of Saturday, the team was expected to sell about 48,000 tickets for today's game _ just modestly higher than the 45,683 the Bucs averaged for their first two home games.

By comparison, the last time the Bucs had a chance to go three games over .500 was in 1990, and they were averaging 61,474 through four home dates. Even last season, they averaged 61,474 for their first two home games.

"People said they were waiting for us to have a winner," said Terry Wooten, the Bucs' director of ticket operations. "They said they were waiting for us to have a good head coach. They were waiting for us to get more involved in the community. It's like the movie: "If you build it, they will come.' Well, we've built it.

"There's been a wait-and-see attitude about this team for a couple years, and it's hard to shake with just a few wins. It hasn't been one or two years of poor performances, it's been nine. The economy is not the best, and there is competition for the sports dollar. But this team is 3-1 and in first place with a chance to go 4-1. Things have got to improve."

The Bucs thought they had hit upon a bit of marketing genius with the hiring of Wyche. After accepting the job, he organized his own pep rally at Tampa Stadium to announce his hiring and never stopped making appearances _ as many as 90 in the first 100 days _ until training camp began in July.

But when the Bucs opened the season, in new orange pants with cannons exploding in the end zone and a krewe of new pirates parading around Tampa Stadium with an oversized team flag, only 41,315 showed up to watch their team drub Phoenix 23-7.

The highway patrol wrote more tickets that Labor Day weekend.

"It was a little disappointing," Wooten said of the opener. "A new season brings new hope. Unfortunately, we've been selling blue skies for quite some time in the past, but this guy is legitimate. But this guy is for real.

"I can sit here and give you excuses. I can say it was Labor Day weekend, and a lot of people weren't down from up north yet, and the economy is bad there's a lot of excuses. But the bottom line is, the stadium should be full. We are one of 28 teams in 28 cities. The community needs to embrace them. This team is busting their tails. This is not the team of the past. This is a new team under new leadership."

Reasons for apathy, or at least a lack of empathy, by Bucs fans are varied. They range from a sagging economy, to the Bucs' traditional midseason swoon that has produced nine straight years of 10 losses or more, to a low season-ticket base, to unbearable temperatures in September, to wit:

IT COSTS BIG BUC$ _ Tickets to a Bucs game range from $30 for sideline seats to $18 for the end zone. Add the price for parking ($5), hot dogs ($1.75), beer ($3.25 or $4.50), soft drinks ($1.50 to $3.00) and popcorn ($2.75), and the average family of four spends about $125 to $150 for each home game.

"That's a lot of money," said Bucs center Randy Grimes. "The economy's tough right now. A lot of people just can't afford to go to the games, and I can understand that. That's probably the biggest reason, right there."

By comparison, however, the Bucs are a bargain by NFL standards. Their average ticket price _ $24.33 _ is 24th-lowest in the league.

THE GRAND ILLUSION _ Frankly, Bucs fans are a jaded lot. They remember 1990, the last time Tampa Bay had a chance to go three games over .500, and they were hosting a team that went 1-15 the year before. Only then it was the Dallas Cowboys, and not the Indianapolis Colts, who upset the Bucs 17-13, with a touchdown pass from Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin in the final seconds. The defeat sent Tampa Bay reeling to a six-game losing streak and resulted in the firing of Ray Perkins.

"I still have a feeling that the past is still haunting us a little bit," said Wooten. "You can read it in the articles now. They're still referring to the Dallas game of a couple years ago, but this team is different. And a lot of people are starting to believe in this team. Once it catches on and we win this week, which I feel like we'll do, then I think things will take off."

But Bucs quarterback Vinny Testaverde does not fault fans for sitting on their hands and wallets.

"We haven't proven anything yet," Testaverde said. "We've only won three ballgames. Maybe it'll change if we win four. But right now, they probably remember the nine straight losing seasons."

TOUCH HOME BASE _ The Bucs season-ticket sales have eroded like beachfront over the years. After the Ray Perkins/Richard Williamson debacle, the Bucs were glad to actually gain 400 to 500 season-ticket holders with the hiring of Wyche, but that only pushed the total to 31,000.

Tampa Bay fans, knowing the Bucs have 43,000 tickets for sale each week, tend to wait until the last minute to decide whether to go to the games.

"So when you go into a game that's not attractive as the Colts game maybe would be in the beginning of the year when the schedule is released, people know they can wait until the day of the game and buy a ticket," Wooten said. "So it's hard to catch up, hard to make that 60,000 or 70,000 mark in five or six days."

FUN IN THE SUN _ Bucs games at Tampa Stadium are sweltering in September. Even last year's home game against Chicago _ a sellout for five straight years _ fell short by drawing 65,625 when it was moved to September.

That brings us to another oddity that could only occur in Tampa Bay. What do you suppose was the reaction to the Bucs' heart-stopping win at Detroit last week? The ticket lines were jammed Monday morning with Chicago Bears fans buying up the last 1,500 tickets to the Nov. 15 game at Tampa Stadium.

"We've sold out one game, and that's Chicago, but we'll have 20,000 out there rooting for the Bears," Wooten said. "I kept coming up asking, "What are they buying, what are they buying?' A lot were buying Colts, but they were also buying Bears tickets. A trend that kind of puzzled some of my guys working the window was that they were only buying one game.

"What I want the fans of Tampa Bay to do is to buy tickets to watch the Buccaneers. Not to come in to see the Browns, or the Bears or whoever the opposition may be. I want them to come see Tampa Bay, regardless of who they're playing."

But Wyche remains optimistic, if not downright unrealistic, about the Bucs' fan appeal.

"We have to earn back their respect, and we haven't done that yet," Wyche said. "But by the end of the season, Bucs tickets are going to be very hard to come by."

As for now, Wyche might consider bringing the loudspeakers with his taped crowd noise to Tampa Stadium.

Colts at Bucs

When: 1 p.m., today

Radio: WQYK AM (1010) and FM (99.5)

Line: Bucs by 9.