The toughest ticket in Tampa Bay — if not the entire NFL ― belongs to the Bucs. And they know it.
After finishing among the bottom four teams in the league in attendance nine of the past 10 years, the Bucs are relevant again.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic almost certainly will prevent the Bucs and other NFL teams from playing in stadiums full of fans, at least at the start of the regular season.
In fact, NFL owners last Thursday voted to allow teams to cover the first six to eight rows of seats in their stadiums this year.
Part of it is for safety reasons, to limit players’ potential exposure to the virus while in such close proximity to fans. It also will allow teams to sell advertising on the tarps and recover revenue lost by restricted attendance.
As a cannon shot across the proverbial bow of the Bucs’ pirate ship, chief operating officer Brian Ford sent a letter to season pass members Friday assuring them that safety guidelines set by state and local government agencies will be followed to create the safest environment for fans, players, coaches and officials.
‘‘Over the last 24 hours, there have been many reports regarding stadium capacities at NFL venues for the 2020 season,” Ford wrote. “The Buccaneers will continue to work with the NFL, Florida Governor’s Office, City of Tampa Mayor’s Office, Tampa Sports Authority and Hillsborough County officials to ensure we have policies and procedures in place that are appropriate for our community. It is our top priority to create and maintain the safest possible environment for our fans at Raymond James Stadium.
“As we approach kickoff of the 2020 season, we will remain in constant contact with you, providing all of the latest updates as soon as we have them.”
Translation: brace for change.
In fact, the Bucs have halted the sale of season tickets on their website and are instead taking personal information and a promise to call back once the game-day protocols are set.
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The reality is that even if you are currently a season-pass member, it’s not a given that you will be able to attend every game at Raymond James.
Negotiations are underway between the league and NFL Players Association. The first and fourth preseason games will be eliminated. That allows teams more time to make up for a truncated offseason while giving players who test positive for the virus during the preseason an extra week to be healthy for the regular season.
Already, the Bucs know it’s likely they may have to relocate a substantial number of fans with seats in the lower bowl of Raymond James that will be covered by tarps.
The goal for the Bucs and Ford will be to develop the fairest way to get as many fans to see as many games as possible.
This won’t be easy.
For starters, the Bucs don’t begin NFL regular-season play until Sept. 13 at New Orleans. A lot can happen, for better or worse, in 11 to 12 weeks.
What government officials decide is safe for NFL teams in California may be much different for the teams in Florida. Those protocols also could change week to week or month to month.
This much we know: no matter how the Bucs or other teams decide which fans can watch a game at the stadium, some others could be left out. The Bucs don’t want to alienate any of their fans, but they may not be able to make them all happy, either.
The NFL announced it plans to issue full refunds to ticket holders for games played without fans.
The Patriots are offering season ticket holders at an elevated risk of COVID-19 infection the chance to skip the 2020 season entirely and still hold onto their seats for the next year.
The goal, of course, is to get back to having NFL stadiums at full capacity.
How will the Bucs decide which fans will be allowed to watch games? It depends on safety guidelines. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires groups of fans to be spaced 6 feet apart, that creates its own challenge.
For fans that are relocated, do they try to keep them near the same section of the stadium or move them to a designated area of club seats on the west side of Raymond James? Do rows A-G in the lower bowl get relocated for one game, then rows H-N must to do the same the next week?
Sky suites, which are self-contained spaces, will not count toward seating-capacity limits.
Once the league decides seating capacity, the rest can be managed.
Who will get priority? It’s all complete speculation, but you better believe the Bucs will give preference to their longest-tenured season-pass holders and highest-paying customers.
How do the Bucs and other teams manage common areas, like concessions and bathrooms?
Legends Hospitality is devising ways to safely provide and package food and beverage. Movement of fans within the stadium may be limited. There may be no gathering spaces in the end zones, so don’t plan on catching beads from the pirate ship. Fans may be restricted to entering and exiting the same gate rather than be able to roam freely in the stadium, a practice that is common in European soccer leagues.
In a way, the Bucs’ timing couldn’t be worse. They’ve gone 12 seasons without a playoff appearance. Announced attendance has fallen at Raymond James each of the past five seasons. Now they have Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner.
But not everybody may get to watch him play in person.