tampabay.com

Playoff fever engulfs bay area

Bucs merchandise is flying off the shelves as fans get prepared for Sunday's game.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 1, 2008


Now that the holidays are over, playoff fever is hitting Tampa Bay.

You can hear it on talk radio and see it in the stores selling Buccaneers merchandise. By Friday, workers will be coming to the office wearing the Jeff Garcia jerseys they just got for Christmas.

Sunday's game against the New York Giants will be a major gathering of the red-and-pewter tribe as fired-up fans make the pilgrimage to Raymond James Stadium with their car flags, their Chucky dolls, their throwback Creamsicle-colored jerseys and their chants of "DEE-fense!"

But how committed are Bucs fans, really? Here's the acid test: Thousands of season ticket holders are selling playoff tickets online at a steep markup. Monied Giants fans are snapping them up, jetting down for the big game and the warm weather.

On the Bucs' Web site, fans are fretting on the message boards:

I have a bad feeling there will be a lot of NYG fans there...

The Giants fan travel company is hosting a trip...

This game could very well be similar to the 1997 Packers game, where 1/2 of the stadium is cheering for the opponent...

Actually, it's not that bad. So far, locals are grabbing most of the seats.

***

Scalping a ticket outside the stadium is so outdated, so 20th century. Today, fans resell them for a profit on Internet trading sites like Craigslist, eBay and StubHub, which specializes in tickets.

This is no longer illegal in Florida, which repealed its antiscalping law last year.

The Buccaneers were still selling playoff tickets Monday, with a face value of $85 to $545. New Yorkers can't buy them directly from the team, which weeds out non-Florida customers. But 4,200 tickets were available on StubHub.com, priced from $100 for upper-deck nosebleed seats to $1,600 for a front-row perch right behind the Bucs' bench.

Buyers from 30 states have paid an average of $196 per ticket, with a top price of $1,250, said company spokeswoman Joellen Ferrer. Floridians have picked up three-fourths of them, with New York and New Jersey combining for nearly 20 percent.

"We definitely do have some traveling fans," Ferrer said. But the hometown crowd will still dominate.

***

Jeffrey Neil Fox sees the future:

"This town will become electric. People are going to wake up and realize, 'Oh my god, the Bucs are in the playoffs.' It'll intensify. You'll see flags on everybody's cars. They'll wear Buccaneer red on Friday."

Fox owns a team merchandise store in North Tampa called Bucs, Bulls & Bolts Heaven.

He was talking on his cell phone, on his way to pick up yet another shipment of "NFC South Division Champs" T-shirts and hats.

Local sportswear retailers got a bonanza when the team clinched its division with nine shopping days 'til Christmas. A lot of Bucs gear ended up under the tree this year.

At Sports Fan Attic in WestShore Plaza, they've been snapping up Buccaneer Croc shoes along with shirts in the team's old orange colors, said manager Casey McEntegart, 22.

Fans are buying jerseys bearing the older names, Brooks and Barber, or the new ones - Garcia, Graham, Ruud. Everyone's asking for Micheal Spurlock jerseys, but they aren't being made yet. And Mike Alstott jerseys, the team's bestseller for years, are no longer being manufactured.

***

Ask fans why they like these Bucs, and they talk about the crazy but iconic coach, the gutsy quarterback, the hard-hitting defense starring a living legend at linebacker. And lifelong fans take pride in having survived the team's dark ages.

"Going to games at the Old Sombrero, I lived through the days of the Tampa Bay Yuks, the Yuccaneers, the Drunkeneers," said St. Petersburg carpenter Chris Jeter, who dresses as a pirate named "Capt. Sharky" at Bucs games. He's jazzed about the team's first playoff game since 2005 and its second since the 2002 Super Bowl.

"Tony Dungy's team won the Super Bowl, everybody knows that. But (coach Jon) Gruden has proven himself this year, rebuilding the offense and the defense."

The losing years are ancient history to the next generation of fans like 15-year-old Andrew Scavelli, who writes about the Bucs for Palm Harbor High School's student newspaper.

He didn't watch the team's Super Bowl victory because he was only 10 at the time. But he can't wait for this Sunday.

"They have a really good chance, especially with home-field advantage," he said. "When the crowd gets into the game, the fans will be the big difference."

***

Brian Callahan is another fan who vividly recalls the Bucs of old - the consecutive seasons with a 2-14 record, the meager crowds on the hard aluminum benches of Houlihan's Stadium, serenading coach Ray Perkins with a chant:

Throw!

Ray!

in the Bay!

"Fifteen years of terrible football," said Callahan, 34, a Tampa sales rep. "That kind of brutality year in and year out, it kind of forges your fan base."

Things are different now. This Sunday, the Bucs' 66,000-seat stadium will be bursting at the seams. Callahan and his buddy, Greg Graham, will be throwing their long-standing tailgate party, which has grown exponentially over eight years.

The party, called the Pillage Inn, has portable generators, a big-screen TV, an air-conditioning unit, canopies, grills, a barbecue smoker and occasionally a band. This party has its own Web site. They expect to feed at least 100 people on Sunday.

"You're going to have Buccaneer Nation coming out in full force," Callahan said. "Our local fan base is going to go absolutely bonkers."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

FAST FACTS:

Buying playoff tickets

Here are two places to check for available seats.

From the team: Go to www.Buccaneers.com or call the ticket office at (813) 879-2827.

StubHub: Go to www.StubHub.com and click on "Bucs" under the heading "This week's top tickets."