By Pete Williams
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost yesterday to the Carolina Panthers in Tampa before a sellout crowd.
Well, sort of.
The Bucs announced a sellout of 62,422. In the past, they’ve announced legitimate sellouts of nearly 66,000 – and there were no empty seats anywhere. Yesterday, there were large sections of ghost fans. The Tampa Sports Authority, which oversees the stadium, said 42,847 people went through the turnstiles.
The economy has hammered many teams in the NFL but no team has fallen further than the Bucs. It wasn’t that long ago they boasted a season-ticket waiting list of more than 100,000. They plastered it on billboards, a deterrent to existing season ticket holders who might have considered canceling.
Even though the Tampa Bay market has the second-lowest per-capita income in the NFL (to Jacksonville), the Bucs kept raising ticket prices. Before the 2008 season, they raised them 23 percent across the board. Like most teams, the Bucs demanded pre-payment earlier and earlier.
The Bucs have the cushiest stadium deal in the NFL, which is saying a lot. As recently as September, Forbes magazine rated the Bucs as the third-most profitable team in the NFL (behind Dallas and Washington) with an operating income of $68.9 million off revenues of $240 million.
The Bucs, like most teams, pooh-pooh the Forbes numbers. But when the NFL’s official books from 1995-99 were made public several years ago as part of Al Davis’ lawsuit, it was revealed that the Bucs led the league in operating income in 1998 ($33.4 million) and were sixth the following year ($24.6 million). NFL revenues have skyrocketed since 1999, so it figures the current Forbes numbers are reasonably accurate.
Not only that, the Bucs pay far less proportionately in payroll. During their glory years (1999-2002), they were among the biggest spenders in the game. In recent years, the team has kept payroll many millions below the salary cap while continuing to have among the priciest tickets in the game.
The economy has hit the Tampa Bay area even harder than most parts of the country. This is not a town with a lot of corporate and government jobs. It’s a town of small-time entrepreneurs and hustlers, people who feel the downturn more than most.
That’s why though it’s easy to blame the economy or the Bucs retro 1976 performance on ticket sales, the Bucs brought this on themselves long ago. By sucking more money proportionately out of their market than any other team in the game, the Bucs alienated their fanbase long before the economy tanked.
It speaks volumes that fans remained loyal this long. Still, the Glazer family won’t take much of a hit. Even if they were 24,000 fans shy of a true sellout yesterday, that only equates to about $2 million in lost revenue, figuring a per cap of $85 a fan. (Most of the empty seats were in the upper level.) For a team pulling in $240 million a year, that $2 million represents less than 1 percent of revenue.
The Bucs will either sell out or come close in their remaining home games against Green Bay, New Orleans, and the Jets. The Falcons game on Jan.3 will be a huge challenge, though there might be the morbid attraction of seeing if the Bucs can finish 0-16.
For once, Bucs fans are speaking with their wallets. I’m guessing the Glazers aren’t worried. Netting $62 million instead of $69 million this season won’t impact them at all.