Imagine life for Tampa Bay sports fans six months from now. Could five decades of jokes and insults be buried in parades of confetti? Have the dues of the past finally led to glory?
Let’s face it, in the world of sports, we have often been dismissed as America’s poorer relations. We’re the home of indifferent fans; historically frugal or neurotic owners; last-place teams far more comical than lovable.
Yet, look at us now. Three franchises with bankable stars and realistic shots at the Stanley Cup, the World Series and the Super Bowl. The Lightning. The Rays. The Buccaneers. Steven Stamkos. Blake Snell. Tom Brady. Six months of games, and three historic trophies within reach.
Has the golden age of sports arrived in Tampa Bay?
“It’s amazing the opportunity we have right now,” said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. “Let’s just hope this is our time, because it can mean so much more than just the sports themselves.”
No doubt, these are far-flung fantasies. In the era of the coronavirus, we can’t be sure seasons will be played to completion. On top of that, it’s rare for even major markets to have multiple champions at the same time.
But if we’ve learned anything through years of disappointment, it’s that the journey is sometimes its own reward. That feeling of excitement and anticipation that greets every kickoff or puck drop or first pitch. The idea that your team’s potential has earned your abundant faith, and that somehow, you’re now in this together.
“In a market of this size, you wouldn’t think you’d have three teams this good at the same time,” said ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale, who may be Tampa Bay’s most high-profile fan, with season tickets for the Rays and Bucs. “But, like everything else in life, winning can be contagious and losing can be, too. I think one organization sees another and says, ‘We’ve got to try to match that, man. We have to do what they do.’ I think that’s what we’re seeing. I’m embracing it, absolutely.
“Listen to me: I’m 81 years old and I’m acting like I’m 12 … but I absolutely feel all three have a legitimate chance to win it all.”
The folks in Las Vegas agree. The Lightning have the second-best odds of winning the Stanley Cup behind the Bruins, according to the sportsbook betonline.ag. The Rays are the fourth favorite to win the World Series, and the Bucs have the fifth-best chance to win the Super Bowl. No other market has more than two teams in the top 10, let alone the top five in those lists of odds.
And Brady’s arrival, along with Rob Gronkowski, has the rest of the nation paying attention to Tampa Bay like never before.
“I just sent an email to (chief operating officer) Brian Ford over at the Bucs saying, ‘Here I am sitting home bored because of the coronavirus and you guys have got more than you can say grace over,’” said businessman Leonard Levy, who was instrumental in Tampa Bay getting the Bucs as an expansion team in 1976.
If your roots in Tampa Bay predate Raymond James Stadium, Tropicana Field and Amalie Arena, then you know how rare this opportunity feels. Yes, we’ve had our moments. The Bucs won the Super Bowl in January 2003 — and haven’t won a playoff game since. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in June 2004 — and were immediately decimated by labor strife.
Our awkward years spanned generations. The Bucs set the NFL record for consecutive losses in the 1970s, then got worse in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Lightning were bought and sold five times in their first 16 years, and the original Rays owner managed to alienate the entire community before we even had a chance to grow jaded.
It’s entirely fair to point out that attendance has been an ongoing problem in Tampa Bay for as long as we’ve had pro sports, but it should also be noted that devotion was not exactly cultivated by the product on the field or ice.
“I can remember going to the Buccaneers games back in the ’70s and ’80s and people would be sitting in the stands with bags over their heads,” said Paul Catoe, who was the general manager at WFLA-Ch. 8 and later ran the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I was with the television station back then, and we had a sky box at the old sombrero (Tampa Stadium) to entertain clients. I can remember vividly that we couldn’t get enough clients to fill the box. We had tickets in the stands, and we couldn’t give the tickets away. No one wanted to go.”
The turnaround began more than a decade ago, but it’s taken time for all three franchises to synchronize their ascensions. For the Lightning and Rays, it started when Jeff Vinik and Stuart Sternberg became owners. The rewriting of their narratives moved quickly enough, although the two teams have only made the playoffs in the same season twice (2011 and 2019) in the past decade.
The Bucs had a stellar run after Malcolm Glazer bought the team in the mid-1990s, culminating in four consecutive playoff appearances and the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. But after the Glazer family purchased the Manchester United soccer team for $1.47 billion, the commitment to spending seemed to wane for a while in Tampa Bay. Since that 2002 season, the Bucs have gone 107-165.
The hiring of coach Bruce Arians was a turning point last season, and the two-year, $50 million contract given to Brady this spring has suddenly made the Bucs the darlings of the NFL.
And it has brought us to this unaccustomed perch as baseball and football get going, and hockey prepares for the postseason. In the 22 years that the three franchises have been active together, they have yet to all finish with records in the same season.
Could 2020 be the first? Could the next six months be the most exhilarating run of sports in Tampa Bay history?
“It’s as promising a moment as we’ve ever had around here,” said Rick Nafe, the former executive director of the Tampa Sport Authority and director of operations at Tropicana Field. “If there is ever a time to drink the Kool-Aid, it might be now.”
Decades later, Tampa Bay takes its shot at ruling the sports world
It’s not your imagination. Teams from Tampa Bay make the playoffs far less than they should.
If you add up all the teams and playoff spots available in hockey, football and baseball during the seasons Tampa Bay has had teams, the expected percentage of postseason appearances would be 40.7. The actual percentage for the Lightning, Bucs and Rays is 29.
To be fair, all three franchises began as expansion teams, which involves natural growing pains. Even so, Tampa Bay has not often been the center of the sporting world universe.
So what was the single best season in Tampa Bay sports history?
There have only been three seasons (2007, 2011, 2019) when at least two of Tampa Bay’s teams qualified for the postseason, and only the Lightning in 2011 made an extended run in any of those years.
By default, that probably points to the Bucs’ Super Bowl victory in the 2002 season (when the Rays and Lightning had losing records) or the Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship in 2004 (when the Rays and Bucs had losing records) as Tampa Bay’s “glory” years.