The dining area at Champps Americana sports bar spoke volumes about the NFL's blackout rules: Nowhere on the Tampa bar's 22 TV screens could Buccaneers' fans catch Sunday's home opener against the Carolina Panthers.
"I hate it," said Hakeem Davis, 27, of Tampa, who gathered with two work friends to catch the game, but instead had to settle for the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. Every few minutes, the three checked their cellphones to get live scores.
Per league rules, Tampa Bay's opener was blacked out within 75 miles of Raymond James Stadium because ticket sales didn't meet the minimum threshold — in the Bucs' case, 85 percent of nonpremium seating.
For the third year in a row, the Bucs' opener was blacked out.
The decision didn't sit well with Davis. "How are they supposed to build a fan base if you can't even watch them?" he asked.
It also raised questions about what's needed to get fans into the seats after a pile of incentives by the Bucs, including free parking, half-priced concessions (excluding alcohol) and certain tickets discounted to $30 and $15 for kids, apparently could not do the trick. The game, which the Bucs won 16-10, marked the start of the coach Greg Schiano era.
Fans such as Dean Kadesky, 26, of Tampa said the Bucs need to make deeper cuts if they want to entice fans. With the economy still shaky, Bucs' fans have more to worry about than football games.
"By the time you get your tickets, and if you bring your girlfriend and pay for a few beers, and it's like $8 or $9 a beer, it's like $300. Three hundred dollars to go to a game?" he asked. "Do I really want to spend that much?"
As games from around the NFL played out on TV screens, Champps general manager Andrew Kail bemoaned the blackouts. Rain forced some 300 Bucs' tailgaters inside, but when game time approached the place nearly emptied out.
Even with the incentives, "they need to go lower," he said. "The blackouts are killing us."
Jim Burke, food and beverage manager at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg, can relate. Attendance inside is down 50 percent from when the Bucs were regularly on TV three years ago.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if not for the blackout we would be packed in here," he said.
Last year, only two home Bucs' games were aired locally and none was shown the year before. This season, the NFL lowered the number of tickets that must be sold to lift the blackouts. If the blackouts continue, the local fan base could weaken, some say.
Restaurants and bars equipped with NFL Sunday Ticket say their business picks up when football starts, but the service provides 14 other NFL games to show when the local team is blacked out.
"Out of sight and out of mind. I couldn't even tell you five players, because they're not on TV," Ferg's owner Mark Ferguson said. "When they're not on TV, they're weakening their brand. It's not their fault. It's the NFL rules."
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Mike Chen, 25, of Tampa said the blackouts have him watching more Tampa Bay Rays' games.
"I don't even like baseball, but I can tell you more about the Rays than about the Bucs," he said.