When is a home not a home? When you're the Bucs

Published Oct. 30, 2016

TAMPA — It was less than a half-hour after the Bucs came from two touchdowns down to beat the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., and in the visitors locker room, players were celebrating their second win in a row, both wins coming on the road, to improve to 3-3. Coach Dirk Koetter stood at his postgame news conference, looked into the cameras and issued a challenge to Tampa Bay fans.

"We've got to learn how to win some games at home," he said. "Let's keep those Raiders jerseys out of the lower bowl (at Raymond James Stadium). Let's get some Bucs jerseys in there. Let's rock that place! I think we've got three in a row at home. We've got to do our part. We've got to win at home; we've proven we can win on the road."

Maybe it was Dorothy from Kansas, or playwright John Howard Payne in 1823, who first said there's no place like home. But then, neither ever spent a fall Sunday lately at Raymond James Stadium.

Though it has not escaped Koetter that the Bucs have not done their part, losing 15 of their past 18 games in their ballpark since the start of 2014, there is really only one place where an NFL team no longer enjoys a homefield advantage.

Nobody who cheers for the Bucs is gobbling up tickets for games at Raymond James. The team refuses to confirm the number of season ticket holders; that figure was believed to be near the mid 20,000s a few years ago. Those who have ponied up routinely sell their seats to opposing teams' fans.

"Go take a picture of any of them," Koetter said last week. "Denver, Chicago, Giants. Take a picture. See what you get."

Ah, but that's not at all what RJS looked like when the Bucs opened with a Week 3 game against the Bears to begin the 1998 season. Tampa Bay was coming off its first playoff appearance in more than a decade and a 10-6 record a year earlier. Most of the 65,890 seats were filled with fans wearing red and pewter. A block away was a billboard boasting a waiting list of more than 100,000 fans willing to pay for personal seat licenses and make a 10-year commitment for season tickets.

So what happened? Besides losing, of course, and even Koetter says he's "1,000 percent sure that the more you win, the better it gets.''

As the Bucs begin a critical three-game homestand today against the Raiders, they know they face a homefield disadvantage.

In a football-crazed region, the Bucs have a competitive team riding a two-game winning streak. They are a half-game out of first place in the NFC South behind the Falcons, whom they host Thursday. They have a potential franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston from Florida State. And still, fan reaction is somewhere between a yawn and indifference when it comes to attending home games.

"The fans absolutely make a difference," said Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford. "When you start doing 'Tampa!' 'Bay!' Absolutely it makes a difference. And they're missing out. They're missing a good time."

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Ford calls Bucs fans "the best in the NFL.''

Though he might believe that, the turnstiles say otherwise. The Bucs rank 30th in home attendance in the 32-team league, with an announced average of 57,692. Only San Diego and Oakland, teams attempting to relocate, have drawn fewer fans.

And remember, depending on the opponent, many of the fans at RJS are rooting for the other guys. That contingent has been so loud at times that Koetter has complained about his offense having to use a silent snap count in its own building.

So why hasn't RJS been transformed into Lambeau, Soldier Field or Mile High South?

For starters, Ford says, it's in paradise. Tampa is a destination city, a place to which people from the frozen north love to plan vacations to thaw their fannies in those red seats. And the competition for entertainment dollars is much steeper than it is in, say, Green Bay. On any given Sunday, residents and visitors have theme park options such as Busch Gardens and Disney World. And there are other family fun spots such as Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium.

And whether it's the Bucs, Rays or Lightning trying to sell tickets, they're competing with miles of sandy coastline.

Tampa Bay also is a relocation area. Many residents are from the Midwest and Northeast, and they have kept their allegiance to their hometown teams.

One also has to wonder if some Bucs fans haven't totally bought into Winston, whose off-field problems at Florida State included a sexual assault accusation that never resulted in criminal charges or other penalties. A civil suit in the assault case is scheduled to begin April 3.

More likely, the inconsistent play of Winston and the Bucs has tempered enthusiasm.

Though admitting their record is the top factor in drawing their fans to RJS, the Bucs believe they've done their part to make the fan experience better. They have completed the first phase of a $140 million upgrade at the stadium, which included new HD video boards in each end zone, four HD tower video displays in each corner of the stadium and the tallest HD ribbon board in the league. The 28,000-plus square feet of video display space ranks third among NFL venues.

Ford hopes a win today will begin to turn the tide. The Thursday game could be for first place in the division, plus former safety John Lynch is being inducted into the team's Ring of Honor.

Most Bucs players and coaches are well aware they have lost their homefield advantage. They also know there's only one way to get it back, beginning today against the Raiders.

Just win, baby.

"We're at home," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Let me tell you, I don't care what team comes into our stadium. When we run out of the tunnel, the fans scream and they introduce our players. They don't introduce the other players. I don't care how many Raiders fans are going to be there. … It's about us and our fans. If you live in Tampa and you're a fan of somebody else, oh well. So what? We've got plenty of fans. We'll go win for our fans, and you root for your team."