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For Storm, hail and farewell

In 1991, they took a game created for an arena and stuck it in a little-used dome near downtown St. Petersburg.

Some scoffed. St. Petersburg? Really?

A dome? Come on?

Arena football?

It seemed an unlikely match, but the Florida Suncoast Dome _ snubbed by baseball, the sport it was built for _ needed a tenant, and the Tampa Bay Storm needed a home.

They tied the knot. The great experiment was on.

"It was very exciting," said Bill Bunker, former executive director of the Pinellas Sports Authority. "This was going to be our first franchise."

That great experiment nears an end Saturday night, when the Storm plays its last regular-season game at the Dome, since renamed the ThunderDome.

Next season the Storm will play at Tampa's Ice Palace. The new place will seat about 19,000 _ the size of most Arena League buildings.

The venue will lend itself to better pregame shows. The fans will be closer to the action. There will be luxury boxes.

And that's good, say Storm officials.

"The Ice Palace was built for an event like arena football, and the ThunderDome wasn't," marketing director Tom Veit said. "It's been good to us. But the sightlines are a little ways from the field. Wherever you are in the Ice Palace, you'll be part of the action and close to field."

It is time for the move. The Dome is closing this fall to prepare for that long-awaited baseball team. And truth be told, indoor football has lost some of its luster in the non-cozy confines of the Dome.

"There was a lot of opposition to building the dome in St. Pete," Bunker said. "They said no one would ever come to St. Pete to watch something _ old, run-down St. Pete.

"But I think the Storm gave some credibility to the location and the facility."

No matter the game _ Orlando, Albany, the ArenaBowl _ there were always tickets to be had at the Dome, which was the greatest benefit to playing there. The big crowds have helped set up some of arena football's most memorable moments:

+ June 1, 1991: The first game ever (a loss to Orlando), and fans get stuck in lines that keep them outside the Dome until the second quarter. The first of many large walk-up crowds catches the Storm unprepared as 10,354 show up.

+ June 29, 1991: No.

1 on the greatest-games list the league compiled in 1993. Stevie Thomas debuts before 13,961 fans as Tampa Bay beats Albany 57-53.

+ July 13, 1991: The first of a slew of attendance records is set as 24,445 watch a win over Denver.

+ May 7, 1993: For an exhibition game against Detroit, 30,013 fans flood the Dome.

+ June 19, 1993: This regular-season record still stands: 28,745 fans watch the Storm lose to Orlando.

+ Aug. 13, 1994: Orlando's bid for an unbeaten season ends on the last weekend as Tampa Bay thrills 20,019 fans with a 40-39 win.

+ Sept. 1, 1995: The first ArenaBowl at the ThunderDome, and 25,087 are there to watch Tampa Bay win a third title.

In its history, the Dome has attracted 17 crowds that exceed what the Ice Palace will hold.

Bunker helped engineer the deal that brought the Storm to St. Petersburg's arena. He remembers the great excitement, the huge crowds, the odd yet successful marriage. And he will miss it. But even he agrees that when the Storm's stay in the Dome comes to an end, it will be for the better.

"The timing was perfect when the Storm came into the Dome, and it's the perfect time to leave," Bunker said. "It has been a very lucky franchise in that respect."