By Eric Schmidt

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have come full circle in recent years. The franchise started out as the laughing stock of the NFL, underwent a change in ownership which put in place anew coaching staff with a new attitude surrounding the perennial losers, a move which led to the Buccaneers first ever Super Bowl Championship twelve years ago. In recent years, the Buccaneers have regressed and find themselves in the midst of a string of NFL imposed blackouts. Can the Buccaneers stem the tide of blackouts this season?

This season, the NFL eased the blackout requirements for franchises. The league allowed teams to opt into a new system which required only 85% of non-premium tickets to be sold leading up to kickoff instead of the prior 100%. In order to sidestep a sagging attendance at Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers ownership started buying up leftover tickets for pennies on the dollar in order to avoid local blackouts. That practice has come to an end, and the Buccaneers now find themselves as the recipients of 14 home game blackouts in their last 16 home games.

The team has put in place a new coaching staff and with fans showing up in strong numbers during the team’s training camp last month, there appeared to be a renewed excitement surrounding the team. Despite the offseason excitement, the Buccaneers home opener last Sunday against divisional opponent, Carolina Panthers and the reduced number of ticket sales, the Buccaneers suffered yet another home blackout.

Tampa suffered a horrific finish to the 2011 season, dropping 10 straight in franchise record setting fashion. I can understand the frustration that the Buccaneers fans were suffering after the conclusion of last season and the questions surrounding what sort of team they would field in 2012 while starting the season for the second time in four years with a head coach with no actual NFL head coaching experience.

Tampa surprised the NFL football world on Sunday, with a stunning defensive effort which held the Carolina Panthers to just 10 total rushing yards for the entire game. The Buccaneers finally got production out of DT Gerald McCoy. Rookies, RB Doug Martin, LB Lavonte David and S Mark Barron, all showed the fans that the team might have had a successful draft.

The Buccaneers, a team which boasted a season ticket waiting list as recently as 2005, now have tickets available at the window on Sunday morning of game day. Both professional teams in the Bay area are suffering from attendance issues. The Tampa Bay Rays, finally fielding a successful franchise after years of futility, are struggling to get fans to Tropicana Field.

There have been lingering questions surrounding the Buccaneers in recent years regarding their financial viability. This season, the Buccaneers front office pulled out all the stops and made a big splash in free agency for the first time in several years, inking deals worth over $140 million dollars. The week one blackout with the reduced requirements by the league office, have to be disappointing for the ownership.

Perhaps fans were wanting to see what the quality of the product was going to be on the field before returning to the confines of Ray Jay this season. Call them bandwagon fans, but the economic situation in the region is dire. Florida’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. Real estate and the construction industry, a staple of the region, have yet to recover. Food and gasoline prices are significantly higher and a lot of families simply do not have the disposable income in the region they did just a few years ago.

It is simply too presumptive to claim the Buccaneers are on the road back to respectability after just one game. Tampa faces a brutal stretch in their next three games with road games against the Giants and Cowboys before hosting the Washington Redskins.

If the Buccaneers stay in these games and come away with a 2-2 record after the first four games, there should be some buzz for this team in the Bay area. But will that be enough to overcome the recent rash of blackouts? I am thinking not.

I could see two, maybe three home games getting sellouts for the remainder of the season. Non-traditional opponents; Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams, will likely not draw well. Perhaps the Redskins game could reach sellout level and perhaps the December game against the Philadelphia Eagles as well.

Even if the Buccaneers manage to put a much better product on the field for the remainder of the season, I think the attendance is going to still lag. The Tampa Bay region might have to wait another year before seeing the Buccaneers on local television once again on a regular basis.

 

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