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Tampa Bay Is The Epicenter Of Sports. Just Our Luck, During A Pandemic

Seattle Seahawks fan club meets in Tampa
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
The Seattle Seahawks fan club fills Maloney's Local Irish Pub in Tampa

What was once considered the black hole of professional sports is suddenly hot. As the Buccaneers ready for their first playoff game in 12 years, the radar of even casual sports fans is on Tampa Bay.

We're the home of the NFL's Buccaneers, who went 0-26 before their first win - well into their second year. Where the coach once famously replied when asked about his team’s execution, that he was in favor of it. Now, the greatest quarterback of all time - the GOAT - will take snaps this weekend in Tampa Bay's first playoff game since 2007.

"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," said Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck during Brady's first game as a Buc.

Just three months ago, the Rays, in Game 4 of the World Series, had a dreamlike walk-off hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That was only one month after the Lightning dominated the NHL to hoist hockey's 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 related to coronavirus and are playing the first part of their season in Tampa's Amalie Arena.

The son of one of the best players on the Bucs' teams back in those bad, early days sat outside a North Tampa pub recently watching Sunday football. Jimmie Giles Jr. summed up the punch to the gut long-starved sports fans here are feeling in this year of contagion.

"You know, the one time Tampa's doing great," Giles said, "and we can't benefit off it financially or just go to see it as Tampa fans."

That's the rub.

Those Buccaneers went and bought the best quarterback in NFL history. But unless you're a season ticket holder, you can't see him play in person.

The Rays finally made it back to the World Series - about 1,100 miles away in Major League Baseball's coronavirus "bubble" in Arlington, Texas.

And the Lightning? They didn't even play in this country. The team was forced to play in the NHL's "bubbles," first in Toronto and then Edmonton. Alberta. In Canada.

Tampa is hosting the Super Bowl. During a pandemic. We don't even know if any fans will be allowed in Raymond James Stadium.

But if fans could 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. And no one is interested in paying for a new stadium. Now, there's talk about them playing half the year in Montreal. Canada.

During a visit to Maloney's Local Irish Pub in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa during the Bucs' bye week, I saw not one jersey of red and pewter. Instead, I heard this chant:

"Sea-HAWKS!! Sea-HAWKS!! Sea-HAWKS!!"

Seattle Seahawks flag goes up the flagpole outside Maloney's Local Irish Pub
Steve Newbortn
WUSF Public Media
Seattle Seahawks flag goes up the flagpole outside Maloney's Local Irish Pub

Welcome to the Seattle Seahawks fan club. Three thousand miles away and about 40 degrees warmer.

So many people have moved to Florida from somewhere else, so the local teams have to compete with the loyalties of transplants from New York, Michigan - and Seattle, like Rick Cook of St. Petersburg.

"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," Cook said, cheering on his former hometown team. "I'm not giving up the 'Hawks to be a Bucs fan, though. Got to draw the line somewhere."

The manager of Maloneys, Tony Cacioppo, said this could be Tampa Bay's year of salvation.

"It's been a redemption year for the sports fan, for sure," he said. "For sure."

Whether the GOAT - Tom Brady - will 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?

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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