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Once-sorry Bucs carry region to higher, common ground

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000

TAMPA -- Years ago, when former Congressman Sam Gibbons would tell his colleagues where he was from, he would get the same response:

"I've been to Miami."

"I'm glad," Gibbons would say. "Miami is as far from Tampa as Washington is from Boston."

Those kinds of slights to Tampa's civic pride fueled the drive for the past 40 years to "put Tampa on the map." And for years, putting Tampa on the map meant putting a professional football franchise in Tampa.

But even when the city accomplished that goal in 1974, Tampa was still relegated to laughing-stock status. Tampa was on the map: As the home of the sorriest team in the history of the NFL.

So, given all the years of civic energy and the million in tax dollars invested to bring a championship professional sports team here, it's easy to understand why things finally seem grand.

The Bucs have finally earned a place as one of the big-time NFL teams, even though they lost Sunday's NFC Championship Game 11-6 to the St. Louis Rams.

Fans are already talking about next season, when they hope the Bucs can become the first team in NFL history to play at home in the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa.

"I've been waiting for 15 years to be able to do this," said Margaret Bowles, a lawyer who took off work Friday to see the Buccaneers depart for St. Louis from Raymond James Stadium.

She stood in a line for about an hour just to glimpse players driving into the parking lot in their cars. "Our phones are probably ringing off the hook while we are gone," Bowles said.

But she didn't care.

Next to her, college senior Danielle de Gregory, 28, was screaming as the team bus whizzed by and Bucs safety John Lynch smiled at her. She was hoisted in the air on a friend's shoulder, holding a sign that said, "Hey Lynch. Ram This," with an arrow pointed to her mid-section.

"He saw the sign! He saw the sign!" her friend, Stacey NewVille, 22, screamed, as she jumped up and down.

Sports boosters who brought an NFL franchise to Tampa in 1974 imagined that a winning team would feel this way.

Tom McEwen, the Tampa Tribune columnist whose efforts helped lure the team here, remembered first realizing the potential for pro football in 1968. McEwen and promoter Bill Marcum stood on the 50-yard line of Tampa Stadium to introduce an NFL exhibition between Washington and Atlanta. About 46,000 fans were crammed in for a meaningless preseason contest.

"We said, "What in the hell do we have here?' " McEwen recalled. "That clicked it. We said, hey, let's move."

Tampa Stadium, built in 1967 at a cost of $4.1-million, was enlarged in 1974 to hold 72,000 seats and accommodate the Bucs.

Tampa had arrived.

McEwen includes bringing the Bucs to Tampa on a short list of things that pushed this area into a new level of urbanism. The other accomplishments were the routing of the interstate highway through St. Petersburg, the creation of the University of South Florida and the construction of Tampa International Airport.

"You look at the skyline of Tampa, and you wonder if you took the Bucs out of the equation ... if the skyline would look the same," said Rick Nafe, director of operations at Tropicana Field and the former executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority.

The benefits don't just come from economic development, said Ed Turanchik, who wants to bring the Olympics to Florida in 2012.

"I think what sports teams do is provide a common ground of human interaction," he said. "You see people -- complete strangers -- giving each other high-fives over a sports team. You don't do that because you paved the street, moved a new company to town, or because the crime rate is down 5 percent."

The Bucs also helped shape the area's identity as one metropolitan region called "Tampa Bay" instead of two provincial cities called Tampa and St. Petersburg. Broadcasters still mistakenly refer to the area as "Tampa Bay," as though it is a city.

More often, though, broadcasters had uttered the team's name as a synonym for loser.

"We had to endure all those Johnny Carson jokes," said Toy Pelaez, 39, a Tampa fire inspector and lifelong fan who was sipping coffee in a Bucs shirt and cap Friday at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop.

Back then, Tampa Stadium would only sell out when a visiting team like the Chicago Bears were playing the Bucs.

"It was very sad to sit in our home stands, and you would be in the minority," said Sue House, a member of the Tampa Sports Authority.

Since the Bucs weren't helping to cure Tampa's inferiority complex, civic leaders began to lure other professional sports teams.

Taxpayers helped finance the construction of the Ice Palace, which cost about $153-million, to attract the Tampa Bay Lightning. The public built Legends Field, the spring training home of the New York Yankees, for $17.2-million. The cost to build and then renovate Tropicana Field for the arrival of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 came to about $240-million.

Then it cost taxpayers another $168-million to build Raymond James Stadium -- just to keep the Bucs from moving.

Was it worth it?

Not financially, said Philip Porter, an economics professor at the University of South Florida. Porter has concluded that studies claiming NFL teams or Super Bowls help a region's economy are "bogus economics."

"Is it right?" asked former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe, who filed a lawsuit in an unsuccessful effort to prevent the county from using public money to build Raymond James Stadium. "Should we enrich one private entity by giving them (public) money? The answer is, obviously, "no.' "

Last week, as Bucs flags fluttered on cars all across town, the ethical questions didn't seem that immediate.

Tampa wasn't a second-class city anymore.

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