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  1. Sports

Tampa Bay sports fans lament possible lost seasons in the stands

Some of these diehards never miss a home game at Raymond James Stadium. Or Amalie Arena. Or Tropicana Field. But the pandemic may win out this year.

Cookie Gross knows exactly where she’s supposed to be when it comes to the Lightning’s games at Amalie Arena.

She’s always down by the ice during warmups, standing with a group of friends between Sections 126 and 128 as the players skate around and music is pumped through the speakers.

Forward Brayden Point always makes a point to smile at her as he takes his laps around the ice.

When Gross, of Valrico, was gone for a month on a trip to South America in February 2018, Point noticed. She talked to him after a practice in Brandon soon after returning, and he noted that she had missed six home games; he had worried about her.

It’s a moment she’ll never forget but one she thinks of even more frequently now as the coronavirus pandemic threatens fans’ return to the stands.

“The players are used to getting that energy from the crowd,” Gross said. “I’ve seen people say, ‘How will the players know when to shoot without us being there?’ And my other thing is, how will the refs know they suck if we don’t tell them?”

Cookie Gross, 72, displays a Tampa Bay Lightning game ticket signed by Steven Stamkos from a game where he scored his fourth career hat trick. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Gross, 72, has been going to Lightning games consistently since she and her husband, Steve, 75, went in on season tickets with friends in 2003-04.

She didn’t know a whole lot about hockey initially, so she went to the Brandon Regional Library to read about the rules and everything else that now makes the sport exciting for her.

Gross has missed being able to watch live games during the pandemic. She enjoyed reliving the Lightning’s only Stanley Cup championship when Fox Sports Sun re-aired the playoff games of 2004. But now she’s worried about what comes next.

Related: Why is it taking the NHL so long to reveal its plans?

The 2004-05 season was canceled in February because of a lockout as negotiations for a new labor deal floundered. It was the first time the Stanley Cup had not been awarded since 1919, when the final was cancelled after the fifth game because of a flu epidemic. And Gross has often thought about what could have been the season after the Lightning won the Cup.

“I think with the lockout, we kept hoping, ‘OK, maybe next month, maybe next month,’ " she said. “But (now), I am missing it, and I know the players are missing it, but I do not want any harm to come to any player, our team or any team, and for staff that have to go with the team. I would hate to see someone get severely ill, and not only that person get ill but pass it on to other players and personnel. That would be horrible.”

A collection of Tampa Bay Lightning bobbleheads, along with a signed team center ice Stanley Cup photo, on the wall at the home of Cookie and Steve Gross. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Gross’ DVR recordings have kept her company during the pandemic, along with her Lightning collectibles, signed sticks, jerseys and tickets, bobbleheads, wooden Russian nesting dolls, photographs from Lightning road trips with friends and other treasures.

But nothing compares to the sounds of a hockey game in a full arena. That players could resume this season with a playoff setup without sounds from a crowd is a strange thought for Gross.

“It’s going to be a little bit surreal. It’ll be like watching a practice. But it’s the playoffs. Things take on a whole other dimension when it’s playoff time.”

‘The curse of the Buccaneers'

Season ticket holder and Buccaneers fan, Paul Bullara III, poses in his bar room, where he keeps most of his prized Buccaneers memorabilia, at his home in Land O'Lakes. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Paul Bullara III was close to canceling his Bucs season tickets after 43 seasons.

After 2019′s stretch of five straight games on the road, Bullara, 63, had gotten used to the luxuries of watching games in his home theater without having to spend a whole day at Raymond James Stadium.

Then came the new uniforms. And Tom Brady. And Rob Gronkowski.

“And by the time (fans) come back, Brady will retire,” Bullara joked.

But it’s no joke that Bullara might have to go back to his 100-square-foot projector setup in Land O’ Lakes if some fans are not allowed inside the stadium for games this year.

Related: Tom Brady is the hottest ticket in the NFL, but who can watch?

It would be typical Bucs that a pandemic may stop fans from seeing Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion, in person in the season Tampa Bay is set to host Super Bowl 55, Bullara said.

“It’s just our luck. That’s kind of the curse of the Buccaneers,” he said.

Bullara hopes that if fans can’t attend regular-season games, they’d miss preseason matchups, if any are played, or the first month of the season at most.

“If I had to sacrifice the first month of the season of not going to the stadium but knowing that I can watch them (later), that is far better than them not playing at all, that’s for sure,” he said.

A home media room featuring a 100-inch projector screen to watch road games is accented with Bucs-themed decor at the home of Paul Bullara III. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Bullara’s game-day setup is pretty standard now. His wife, Kathy, helps prepare a meal so he and his family and/or friends can tailgate. They always eat food themed to the team the Bucs are playing. If it’s the Saints, for example, jambalaya or gumbo is on the menu.

And Bullara is always in his seat for kickoff.

Since the 1977-78 season, Bullara has missed only five games, all due to family conflicts or illness. Other than that, he has been a mainstay at Raymond James, sitting in Section 108, Row J.

But with playing games without fans a possibility, Bullara believes homefield advantage would be a moot point, though he admits that hasn’t been a factor at Raymond James in the past decade or so.

Related: What happens to the home-field advantage without fans?

“You look at Seattle, I mean they’re the 12th man (the fans’ nickname),” he said. “That’s homefield advantage. (But not having fans in the stands), that’s going to be tough. That’s going to be hard for the players because there’s a lot of time the fans get the players excited. It’s going to change a lot of the way the game’s played.”

The Brady factor is still setting in for Bullara. He doesn’t think it will really hit until he’s able to see Brady on the field in a Bucs jersey. If that happens.

“He’s one of the best quarterbacks ever,” Bullara said, “and to be able to watch him every game, to see what he does, what everybody’s talking about, I mean how many fans have that other than New England?”

Sound of silence won’t faze Rays

David Fackson poses for a selfie with his grandmother, Debbie Covington, at Game 4 of the 2019 ALDS. Fackson, 16, goes to at least 50 percent of the Rays games at Tropicana Field every season. [ David Fackson ]

When David Fackson walked around Tropicana Field in February for Rays Fan Fest, he didn’t know it might be the last time he could take in the hustle and bustle of his second home for the foreseeable future.

Major League Baseball delaying the start of the season due to the pandemic wasn’t a surprise to Fackson, of Valrico, but that players and teams took so long to agree to a restart, mostly because of money, was disappointing.

“It’s pretty sad,” the Durant High School senior to-be said. “People need baseball.”

Fackson, 16, said he attends between 30 to 40 Rays home games every season. He used to enjoy sitting in the third deck before the Rays closed that last year. Now he just sits wherever he can find tickets.

Related: Rays ready to pick up where they left off

Sometimes, his mom’s boss will sell them tickets behind the visiting dugout. It makes for an entertaining evening between the opposing fans and the commentary he can hear from the team below.

But most teams plan to play without fans initially this planned 60-game season, and possibly for its entirety.

“It’d be really rough (not being able to go to the games),” Fackson said. “It’d be an adjustment period.”

Fackson makes every Rays game a priority. He works his social and school calendars around the Rays’ schedule, including the road trips.

He’s tired of hearing jokes from family and friends that the Rays can’t hold an audience, but in this situation, he thinks it might work out for them.

“I think if any team, actually two teams, were going to benefit from it, it would probably be the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays,” Fackson said. “The New York Yankees and the Red Sox are used to packed stands every day.”

Now all teams will have to adjust to quieter atmospheres.

But Fackson doesn’t think it will take the league too long to adjust.

“It’d be weird, but, I mean, after like 10 games (they’d be fine),” Fackson said. “These guys are so good at adjusting, and I think people forget about that. I think (the players) would put it past them eventually.”

USF football zealot plans to persist amidst pandemic

USF football fan Suzanne Ward poses with mascot Rocky the Bull. [ Courtesy of Suzanne Ward ]

To even the most zealous fans of USF football, Suzanne Ward’s devotion remains in another realm.

At least three time zones away.

One of the handful of humans who has attended all 276 Bulls contests, the 56-year-old USF alumnus has flown to every game — home and away — since moving to Portland, Ore., in 2003.

“Including when I worked in Asia,” said Ward, who was in the continent designing medical devices. “So I have flown from Singapore to make a football game.”

And she’s not about to let a pandemic threaten her streak.

Ward, who is single and has no children, already has booked flights, hotels and ground transportation for the 2020 season. Her seat at Raymond James Stadium — 50-yard line, home side, eight rows up — is secure. When tickets for road games become available, she’ll pounce.

Related: Marching bands aren’t sure how to handle the pandemic. So they commissioned two studies involving spit.

But don’t mistake her zeal for coronavirus complacency. If the season happens, no one from USF — except for perhaps the team — will put themselves more squarely in the virus crosshairs.

“Each weekend (during the season), I spend 18 hours in airports or on airplanes,” said Ward, who manages a software development team for Intel Corp. and made a $1.5 million donation to USF’s athletic program last year.

“So it’s not just driving in my car. I sit in kind of an open area. A lot of people buy tickets and don’t attend, so I’ve kind of got a little bubble around me. But the getting there is going to be the higher risk for me.”

It’s a risk she’s still willing to take — at this point. A recent fan survey sent out by the school asked its season-ticket holders if they’d be willing to sit somewhere else this fall, presumably as a virus precaution. Ward, who grew up in Riverview and attended East Bay High, has invested too much to relinquish her seat.

“But I don’t like this uncertainty,” she said.

“I wish that we’d either just say (the season’s) not going to happen and then deal with the repercussions … because it’s going to keep dragging.”

Soccer without fans? That’s just ‘odd'

Carlos Rueda Jr. at the Rowdies' final home game of the 2019 season against the Indy Eleven. Rueda, 18, has been attending all of the Rowdies home games consistently since February 2016. [ Carlos Rueda, Jr. ]

Carlos Rueda Jr.‘s memory of his first Rowdies game isn’t nearly as foggy as the green smoke bombs that Ralph’s Mob used to hype up Al Lang Stadium in 2016.

Rueda, 18, went with his club soccer team from Town ‘n' Country to a preseason game against D.C. United on Feb. 13 of that year. At the time, he had barely heard of the local team. Four years later, he remembers the sights and sounds that made him want to buy season tickets. “I felt it,” he said about the game. “It’s been a huge part of my life since then.”

Now Rueda wonders how teams will adjust without crowd support.

“The games (in Germany) without fans is just odd,” he said. “It’s eerie. Fan culture in soccer is such an integral part of the game.”

Rueda believes that fans make up half of the game experience, so when you take away “the most important part of the game …”

Related: What will the Rowdies’ return to play look like?

But he’ll take any soccer over no soccer at all.

The Jesuit High graduate will attend Georgetown in the fall and was hoping to get in a few Rowdies games this summer before leaving for school. Now, he’ll be grateful to get in one.

He loves the player-fan relationships built off the field within the Rowdies organizations, especially with their community events.

Rueda met striker Sebastian Guenzatti at USF this year. The two chatted about Guenzatti’s career and found a commonality when Guenzatti started talking about an international tournament he had competed in against a team that Rueda’s family supports from Ecuador.

“That was a cool connection,” Rueda said.

The soon-to-be college freshman was already coordinating with his new roommate, who is from California and also enjoys soccer, about recording their game-time reactions on a YouTube channel, which Rueda said is a popular thing to do in South America.

“I feel like that would be a cool way for me to keep up with the Rowdies family and the Rowdies community from up there (in Washington),” he said. “I’ll definitely keep up with them in D.C.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari. Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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