© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 1998
AMPA -- Bucs coach Tony Dungy led his team onto the field at Raymond James Stadium for the first time one day earlier this month. Players strolled the lush, green turf that was still unchalked. They gazed upward and were struck by the height of the third level. Walking through the three-story glass atrium gave them a feel for the amenities that fill the $168.5-million football palace.
But the most important thing Bucs players took home from RJS that day wasn't discovering that the 65,000 theater seats are wider, cushioned and equipped with a cup holder. It's knowing that for the first time in club history, every seat will contain a fan.
Beginning Sept. 20 against the Chicago Bears, all eight Bucs home games are sold out this year. For all the luxuries that greet the patrons of the NFL's most modern facility, it matters none unless opponents are made to feel very uncomfortable.
"I think it has the potential to be something really special for the players," said Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer. "It's the same thing that every single team in the NFL tries to accomplish. Hey, this is our house. Our fans know it's our house. The guy selling beer knows it's our house. You don't come in here and expect to win if you're the other team.
"That's not going to be there just because we paid $200-million for a new stadium and it has a big pirate ship in the corner. That ain't going to do it, I promise you. What's going to do it is winning football games there, big football games there. And that's a great challenge in our division. That's why Green Bay's record is so phenomenal at home, because of the teams they've done it against. If we could accomplish that, it'll be a very, very proud thing. If we struggle playing there, it'll be a nice, pretty stadium that's filled. Until we don't play well there for a long period of time, then it won't be filled."
The Bucs have always had trouble establishing much of a home-field advantage.
Unlike hallowed buildings such as Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Soldier Field in Chicago, a sellout at Houlihan's Stadium usually meant about half the fans would be dressed in the colors of the visiting team.
This was due as much to the Bucs' poor record and dwindling fan base as the migratory habits of Packers and Bears fans to central Florida.
But beginning this year, with 55,000 season ticket holders who have each plunked down a 10-year seat deposit, Raymond James Stadium should be painted red and pewter for many Sundays to come.
"From our standpoint, it's nice to have all the amenities for the fans," said Bucs coach Tony Dungy. "It's nice to make it a good place to play from a fan's standpoint. I think it's going to be loud because most of the seats are between the goal line and the fact that there will be people there. The Sombrero was great the last eight games of the season because it was full and the atmosphere was good. So hopefully, we'll have the same thing.
"I think you can take a little pride. Hopefully, we can start a winning streak, somewhat like Carolina, where you feel like we haven't lost here and we don't want to give that up."
If anything, Raymond James Stadium has already helped guarantee the Bucs' success in the future.
Thanks to the revenues produced by the charter seat deposits as well as the sale of club seats and sky suites that nearly doubled the price of a ticket to $64.58, Bucs ownership was able to pay more than $30-million in signing bonuses since last season to extend the contracts of their core players.
Although Dungy is not a huge proponent of free agency, adding just one this year, the new stadium and plans for a $12-million training facility adjacent to RJS will help the recruitment of players.
"We've taken some major steps to get this team going in the right direction," said Bucs guard Jorge Diaz. "If you're building a championship team, you want to have a championship facility. The stadium is the first step in that direction."
Of course, there is one more bonus. Raymond James Stadium will host Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. Talk about odysseys. Tampa Bay should be an established contender by then.
"We really started it last year and we'd like to maintain it and make this the place where it's tough to come in and win and really have a true home-field advantage," said Bucs safety John Lynch. "If you throw this new stadium in there and we continue to play good football, people are going to be pumped up and we in turn will feed off that. That's what Tony has talked about. We want to make this a place where it's awfully tough to come in and get a road win."