TAMPA — A charitable depiction of sports markets in Florida would argue that we have evolved to a higher plane. More sophisticated and less vociferous than the knuckle-draggers up north. We are generous when sharing tickets and discerning when choosing allegiances. We are the model, some might say, for the new millennium.
Either that, or we’re just lame.
I mean, the buzz for this Lightning-Panthers playoff series has been kinda off, no? The FLA Live Arena in Sunrise is on the outskirts of Broward County, and the vibe was more soccer mom than psychopath.
And that’s fine if you don’t want beer spilled on you, or to subject your children to roundish dudes in smallish jerseys cursing and brawling. But isn’t this supposed to be a heated rivalry? Shouldn’t there be a good-natured sense of — oh, I don’t know — mayhem on tap?
Where are our viral videos of despicable behavior?
I jest, of course. But not entirely. If the world thought the Lightning-Panthers series was going to be a geographic bloodletting along the lines of Bruins-Canadiens or Flames-Oilers, they’re in for a shock.
Tampa Bay and Miami — or St. Pete and Fort Lauderdale, as the case may be — is not your typical rivalry. If Calgary and Edmonton are having the Battle for Alberta in the Western Conference, then Tampa Bay and Miami is more like Mojitos for Happy Hour in the Eastern Conference.
We just don’t have a lot of hate for our roomies to the south. Never really have.
“When we would prepare for the (Citrus) series between Tampa and Miami when I first got to Miami, I would put in the budget that attendance would be up for those games because I thought it would be a great rivalry like New York-Boston. Or Milwaukee-Chicago,” said former Marlins president David Samson. “And what I found over the years is people didn’t care one bit about a Tampa-Miami rivalry.”
In our defense, there are legitimate reasons for that. Both places are relatively new as sports markets. Fifty years ago, the only major franchise in the state was the Miami Dolphins. The Bucs, the Heat, the Lightning, the Marlins, the Panthers and the Rays were late arrivals to the party.
In fact, if you grew up in Tampa Bay in the 1970s, the Dolphins were your team. The walls of my bedroom were covered with Bob Griese, Paul Warfield and Larry Csonka posters.
And, unlike the Bears-Packers or Dodgers-Giants, the Bucs and Dolphins were never in the same division, let alone the same conference. (Except for Tampa Bay’s bizarre debut season in the AFC West.)
You want to know the most significant football moment between Miami and Tampa Bay? That would be 1996 when Jimmy Johnson snubbed the Bucs and signed a deal with the Dolphins. Turns out, that worked out quite well around here. The Bucs, instead, hired a guy named Tony Dungy.
It’s the same deal with the Rays and Marlins. They used to give out a hideous trophy with bronzed-like fruit for the so-called Citrus Series winner, but that got tossed — inadvertently or purposefully, we’ll never know — somewhere along the line.
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Which brings us to the Panthers-Lightning today. Of all the sports, this is the one that has a legit chance for real heat. The NHL has wisely kept them in the same division, and this is the second season in a row they have met up in the playoffs.
While the 2021 series was spirited on the ice, it just hasn’t translated into the bleachers. Devon Garnett and a group of friends drove down to Sunrise from Tampa Bay for Game 2 on Thursday hoping to get a group of seats together. Not a problem. They got six tickets in the same row in the lower bowl for about $100 apiece.
They partied in the parking lot before the game without a second glance from genteel Florida fans and later shot a video of their celebration in the bleachers after Ross Colton’s winning goal.
If the hometown fans were offended, they hid it well. In Garnett’s selfie video, they look less like people who have had their hearts ripped out and more like a crowd waiting in line at Disney.
“I was super surprised because I’ve been in other environments where fans will be talking trash with you all game long,” Garnett said. “There was just nothing there. No back-and-forth, at all.”
As if to verify this, Vegas Insider recently surveyed hockey fans across the country to determine which market was most likely to be throwing fists in the bleachers.
Tampa Bay didn’t seem to register at all in the survey, which is better than Florida’s fate. The Panthers ranked fourth in terms of fans most likely to lose a fight.
“Miami just wasn’t really on anybody’s radar,” said Tricia Harte, who handles media relations for Vegas Insider. “If you’re looking to start a fight, that might be a good place if you want to come out on top.”
Maybe things will be kicked up a notch at Amalie Arena for Game 3 on Sunday. If there is a model franchise and fan base in Tampa Bay, it’s the folks on Channelside Drive.
The game will sell out, the mood will be festive and the players will do their part. And I’m sure Panthers fans will be a lot more animated than I’m giving them credit for.
If any of them show up.
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