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How Pandemic Has Affected Tampa Bay's Sports Resurgence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When it comes to sports towns, Tampa will never be confused with, say, Boston. But this year turned out to be one of the best in Tampa sports history, even if many local fans couldn't experience the excitement in person. Steve Newborn of member station WUSF reports.

STEVE NEWBORN, BYLINE: When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first joined the NFL, they lost their first 26 games. Their coach once famously replied when asked about the team's execution, that he was in favor of it. Now the greatest quarterback of all time, the GOAT, is taking snaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BUCK: Tom Brady and the Buccaneer offense will set up after a 39-yard punt, and I don't think there's been a more anticipated uniform change maybe in the history of the league to see what the GOAT looks like in pewter.

NEWBORN: It's not just football capturing the excitement this year. The Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series, producing some of the most exciting games in recent memory. The Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the National Hockey League to win the Stanley Cup.

And if that's not enough, say hello to the Tampa Bay Raptors. Well, not really. The 2019 NBA champions were forced out of Toronto by border restrictions because of the coronavirus and will play the first part of their basketball season in Tampa. Bobby Webster, the team's general manager, said walking past swaying palm trees beats trudging through two feet of snow to get to the games.

BOBBY WEBSTER: We're viewing it as, you know, for lack of a better experience, but we are here in a nice, sunny Florida with no state income tax.

NEWBORN: Sports fans are enjoying the spotlight. Well, sort of. Jimmie Giles Jr. says the success is bittersweet.

JIMMIE GILES JR: You know, the one time Tampa's doing great and we can't benefit off it financially or just go to see it as Tampa fans.

NEWBORN: That's the rub. Those Buccaneers who haven't been to the playoffs in 12 years went and bought the best quarterback in National Football League history. But COVID seating restrictions prevent most from seeing him in person. And the Rays played some of the most memorable baseball games in years 3,000 miles away in San Diego. And the Lightning - they didn't even play in this country. The team was forced into National Hockey League bubbles in Canada.

But if fans can see their sports heroes bat it out of the park, would they come? After all, the Rays have consistently played in a half-empty Tropicana Field anyway. During a recent visit to a local bar, there were more cheers for teams not from Tampa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come on, Seahawks.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: First down.

NEWBORN: Welcome to the Seattle Seahawks fan club. Rick Cook moved here from Seattle last year.

RICK COOK: If the Seattle teams were as successful as the Tampa Bay teams, the stadiums would be packed. Tampa does not appreciate what they have here.

NEWBORN: And that's part of the problem. Many fans had moved to Florida from somewhere else, so the local teams have to compete with the loyalties of transplants from New York, Michigan and Seattle. Pub manager Tony Cacioppo said this could be Tampa Bay's year of salvation.

TONY CACIOPPO: To be in a, what I would say, a great sports town this year and to have the COVID, it's unbelievable.

NEWBORN: Adding to Tampa's sports woes, the city is hosting the Super Bowl. Whether quarterback Tom Brady can make it a trifecta of redemption for Tampa Bay is still up in the air. And if it is, will anyone be in the stands to see it?

For NPR News, I'm Steve Newborn in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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