TAMPA — Tom Brady’s first two games at Raymond James Stadium quarterbacking the Bucs will be played in front of 65,890 empty seats.
Citing concern for the health and safety of players, fans, staff and the community, the Bucs informed season pass members Wednesday that it’s too soon to play an NFL game in Tampa Bay with fans in attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No fans will be permitted until October at the earliest, wiping out the possibility of seeing Brady and the Bucs in person for the home opener against the Carolina Panthers (Sept. 20) and vs. the Los Angeles Chargers (Oct. 4).
If coronavirus cases in Tampa Bay continue to decline, the Bucs say they are focused on welcoming some fans back to the stadium when they host the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers Week 6 (Oct. 18).
Until then, hold your applause.
The Bucs begin the season Sept. 13 at New Orleans against the Saints, who already have decided not to sell tickets for that game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Over the past several months, we have worked closely with the NFL and local officials to determine the best way to safely and responsibly host a limited number of fans at Buccaneers home games during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bucs Chief Operating Officer Brian Ford said in the letter to season pass members. “We have sought to balance the opportunity to provide access to you, our loyal fans, with the responsibility to adhere to public health and medical guidance in order to maintain the health and safety of fans, players, staff, and our Tampa community. ...
“Based on our conversations with local officials, we have determined that it is not yet the right time to welcome fans back to Raymond James Stadium.”
Ford said the decision was made by the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, after close consultation and agreement with Hillsborough County, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and the Tampa Sports Authority.
Only five teams have announced their intention to open the 2020 regular season with at least some fans in attendance and two of them play in Florida — the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars. The others are the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts.
“Well, I hate it for the fans, first of all,” coach Bruce Arians said. “You can feel the excitement around town and for them not to load to stadium up and go crazy, it’s a shame. But it is what it is.
"And, you know, we had that (fan) noise going non-stop (in the scrimmage) and (Thursday) we’ll have it going up and down. They practice in that stuff all the time so it just gives you a migraine. It’s different than fans. You can’t feel that noise. You can feel fans.”
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As of Wednesday, there have been more than 631,000 cases and 11,521 deaths from the coronavirus in Florida.
“We share this disappointment along with at least 25 other NFL teams who also won’t be hosting fans to begin the season,” Ford said in the letter. “This September, we will deeply miss the energy and passion that our fans bring to Raymond James Stadium on game days. We remain excited for the 2020 season kickoff in New Orleans on September 13 and appreciate your tremendous support as you “Fire the Cannons” from home!”
It’s a huge buzzkill for the Bucs and their fans, particularly after the team signed Brady, the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, to a two-year, $50 million contract. They also traded for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who ended his retirement from the NFL to be reunited with Brady. The Bucs have not reached the playoffs in 12 seasons, but became instant Super Bowl contenders with the addition of Brady.
On July 30, the Bucs announced plans to have a reduced seating capacity for games. Season pass members were given an opportunity to opt out for a full refund or have their season ticket payment for 2020 credited toward 2021 in exchange for access to a priority pre-sale for single-game tickets this season, based on tenure.
Plans for a pre-sale are on hold now, and Ford said additional information will be provided as it becomes available.
Raymond James Stadium received approximately $10.4 million in federal funding through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act for upgrades and safety enhancements. The modifications, everything from touch-free toilets and sinks, hand sanitizing stations and signs, are about 75 percent complete.
The Tampa Sports Authority had been planning for reduced seating capacities at the stadium of approximately 10,000 for USF football games and roughly 14,000 for Bucs games. USF announced it will open against the Citadel on Sept. 12 without fans.
“I think the way the (Bucs) ownership is looking at this is probably the right way,” Tampa Sports Authority president/CEO Eric Hart said. “The area still has the infection rate above the recommended rate to host events like this and the team and everyone is so concerned with public health
“We still are planning on getting this building ready. ... We will miss the fans but we understand that public health is most important and we applaud the team for what they’re doing here.”
Castor also supported the decision and noted a bigger game — Super Bowl 55 — will be played at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7. She hopes the Bucs and their fans will be there to celebrate it.
“I know Bucs fans around the globe are just ecstatic for the season to begin,” Castor said. “Whether it’s in person or without fans, one thing is for certain, come February, when the Super Bowl is here in our great city, our Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be hoisting that Lombardi trophy over their heads with pride.”
But until at least October, it will be the No Fan League at the stadium.