TAMPA — A variety of factors led to the smallest announced crowd for a Bucs regular-season home game since Raymond James Stadium opened 21 years ago.
Among them: A 2-6 record, a seven-week stretch of playing games away from Tampa and an opponent that traditionally draws little interest.
Though last Sunday’s announced crowd of 40,038 to watch the Bucs beat the Cardinals represents just one game, the Bucs rank 30th among the NFL’s 32 teams in average home attendance this season at 50,361, trailing only the winless Bengals and a Chargers team that plays its home games at a Los Angeles soccer stadium with a 30,000-seat football capacity.
That’s a deep fall for a Bucs franchise that once boasted of a season-ticket waiting list of more than 100,000 people, and a fall that coincides with a decade-plus of on-field struggles.
The Bucs haven’t been to the postseason since 2007 and are on pace for their ninth losing season in 11 years. Bruce Arians is their fifth coach in that span, which includes a combined 58-111 record.
“Once the Bucs win again, I have no doubt they’ll be the hottest ticket in town, but the fans aren’t coming back until they do,” said Jason De La Torre, 46, of Wesley Chapel, who owns club season passes. “From the end of ’97 to 2008, you couldn’t find a ticket. Each year as the Bucs continue to disappoint, it’s eroded more and more. Raymond James used to be a great home-field advantage. Now it seems it’s home for opposing fans.”
There are many reasons for fans to stay home. The heat is oppressive into October. The Tampa Bay region has many ways for people to spend their disposable income. Some fans believe technology and social media offer a comparable game experience from the comfort of their homes.
“Non-competitive team, very expensive, very hot,” said Dave Manack, 48, of Land O’ Lakes. “Take away the heat, the other two factors remain. Football has become a much more enjoyable experience at home. I have a 65-inch TV, and I will watch the (NFL) Red Zone (channel) as much as any one game.”
NFL attendance has dropped leaguewide by 3 percent since 2015. This year’s Bucs home average is down 21.99 percent since the 2015 season, when the team drafted quarterback Jameis Winston No. 1 overall. The only two teams with bigger drops are the Bengals and Chargers.
This season’s challenges are unique. The Bucs played two home games in September — disappointing losses to the 49ers and Giants — then over seven weeks played six games away from home. The Bucs returned to Raymond James Stadium last Sunday from that stretch 2-6, all but out of the playoff picture, and their first game back was against a Cardinals team that ranks 27th in average road attendance.
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Before the Cardinals game, the last Bucs home crowd under 50,000 was the Cardinals’ last trip to Tampa, in 2013, which drew 44,956.
This year’s Bucs-Cardinals crowd was down about 15,000 from the Sept. 22 Giants game.
“For sure, the (record) made a difference,” said Alejandro Costas, 25, of Brandon, who said he typically attends half the home games every year. “I think the high expectations that were set by coaching and the front office (for this year), and to see them not win puts us all back in the ‘Well, I guess I’ll save my money and look forward to the draft’ mode for another lost season.
“The fans care but are just tired of the status quo and would rather save their money. … I think the fans, myself included, are tired of hearing the same old, ‘We’re almost there,’ and then follow it up with a double-digit-loss season.”
Despite their 3-6 record, the Bucs have played close games. They’ve owned leads in five of their six losses, including three in the fourth quarter. Asked about the Cardinals crowd, Arians said it’s simple. Winning brings fans back.
“I’ve seen it over and over and over,” he said. “Winning brings back the fans, and we’ve had our chances. Hopefully we can continue and get them back here for December.”
The Bucs have invested more than $130 million in Raymond James Stadium upgrades, which began in 2014 with new concessions throughout the stadium, installing over 38,000 square feet of video board space and a new sound system. They built a 10,000-square-foot team store, renovated club levels and revamped the south concourse to build a Bucs Beach interactive-themed area.
These improvements have helped draw national events to the area, such as next season’s Super Bowl and Wrestlemania on April 5.
The Bucs say their average ticket prices consistently rank in the lower half among NFL teams, with season-ticket membership prices starting as low as $30 a game. Improvements continue to come. This week the Bucs debut the Intel True View system, which will utilize 38 5K ultrahigh definition cameras to create a 360-degree replay that will allow fans in the stadium to see plays from every angle.
“Every year we look to see how we can exceed — not just meet — the expectations of our fans and add value to their experience,” Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford said. “We take great pride in the fact that our customer service experience is perennially ranked as the best in the league. We realize that winning is a big part of what fuels that fan experience, and we feel very confident that we are headed in the right direction.”
There is reason to believe winning will bring fans back, and it might not take that many wins. After the 2018 Bucs started 2-0, they drew a season-high 62,571 for a Monday Night Football contest against the Steelers. But capacity is 65,890, and as the Bucs struggled on their way to a 5-11 finish, no remaining home game drew more than 53,682.
In 2016, the Bucs’ five-game winning streak led to a 6.5 percent average attendance increase for the final four home games.
Fans of visiting teams still fill Raymond James Stadium despite recent attempts by the Bucs to cut out third-party ticket sellers. The Steelers and today’s opponent, the Saints, typically draw a significant number of fans to Tampa. Cheers of Giants fans overwhelmed the lower bowl after quarterback Daniel Jones ran for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter Sept. 22.
De La Torre was frustrated by seeing part of the East Club cordoned off that day for a private party that included mostly Giants fans.
“(You’re) spending 60 minutes fighting for your team against all the transplant fans in this city just to see your team find some different way to blow it at the end,” said Justin McGee, 34, of Tampa. “Couple that with how long it’s been going on and (the stadium) just isn’t what it used to be like back in the day.
“I went to the game in Seattle (on Nov. 3) and I forgot what an outdoor stadium that has electric fans in it can be like. Hasn’t been that way since ’07. With that being said, I’ll be there Sunday.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.