Blackout Bowl: Story of two Florida markets

We’ve talked many times over the past few months about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the possibility of having games blacked out from local television.

WeaverWeaverThe possibility became reality when the Bucs hosted Kansas City last week in a preseason game, and Saturday night’s exhibition against Jacksonville will mark the second time in history that Raymond James Stadium will not be sold out.

We’re not even to the regular season yet, but the fact that Jacksonville and Tampa Bay are facing each other makes the topics of ticket sales and blackouts quite relevant.

Veteran writer Vito Stellino takes an extensive look at the situation the Jaguars, owned by Wayne Weaver, and Buccaneers are facing when it comes to selling tickets. The Bucs avoided blackouts on several occasions by buying up the unsold tickets. One high-ranking NFL official from another team estimated to me that the Bucs were writing a check for somewhere around $500,000 to keep their games on local television most times last season.

Bucs spokesman Jonathan Grella told Stellino the team has decided that’s not a “sustainable practice’’ and that’s pretty obvious, especially because the number likely would go up because season-ticket sales don’t appear to be as high as they were last year.

It’s a tough spot to be in, and the Buccaneers and Jaguars face many of the same obstacles. We’ve talked about many of them before – the Florida economy has been hit especially hard, and there are a lot of other activities in Florida. Throw in the fact Florida has a transient population, with many residents remaining fans of the teams from their former hometowns, and that helps explain the situation.

Although the Jaguars had seven games blacked out last season and there have been rumblings for several years that the franchise could be moved, the Bucs might actually be the team with the bigger problem.

Jacksonville is the 47-largest television market. Even though the Jaguars are theoretically the only show in town, that never really has been true. To many people in the Jacksonville region, University of Florida football is a much bigger deal than the Jaguars, even in the years when the Jaguars win.

That situation’s going to work itself out – either the Jaguars will continue to do what they do in a small market or they’ll move to a bigger one.

Despite its flaws, Tampa Bay is just too good a market to abandon. When you put Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota together, the region has the No. 14 television market. Although there are other pro sports around and a certain amount of fans that are pretty loyal to Florida, Florida State and the University of South Florida, Tampa is a pro football market first and foremost.

Even with the Rays in the pennant race, you’re more likely to hear people talking about what the Bucs might do with Michael Clayton or Derrick Ward than baseball. Fans still are interested in the Bucs, they’re just not willing to pay big money to go watch them.

But this is far from a lost cause. The market is there, the interest is there and even with the economy, there’s still enough money out there to fill up Raymond James Stadium again. The Bucs are doing their part with marketing and being fan friendly. But there’s one simple solution for all this, although it could take several years to play out.

The Bucs, 3-13 a year ago, need to go out and win some games. All people in the Tampa Bay area are waiting for is a legitimate reason to go buy tickets.