Tampa Bay Bucs: Listen Up, Orlando.
Hello, Orlando. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would like to have a word with you.
They don’t mean to disparage our brothers and sisters in Miami and Jacksonville, but the City on the Bay is where you want to be this National Football League season. This pandemic has been unsettling, but the Buccaneers are still open for business on Sundays, and they want Orlando to be part of the team.
It’s been that way since 2014, when the Bucs opened an office off Eola Drive in downtown Orlando. It’s a way of connecting with the community and bridging the 90-mile commute between Orlando and Raymond James Stadium.
“Our goal has always been to embrace the Orlando community and become part of the sports landscape in the entire Central Florida region,” said Brian Ford, chief operating officer of the Bucs. “It was much more than simply wanting to sell tickets. We have been strategic in our approach to really grow our brand and our presence in the Orlando area.”
The Buccaneers have done exactly what they set out to do in 2014. About 15% of their total season pass members are from the Central Florida area. The number has grown as the team has continued to invest in the Orlando community. The Bucs are involved in six Orlando area chambers of commerce, they’re staging youth programs, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has joined the Bucs for youth camps held near Camping World Stadium.
The team has also created options to ease the commute to home games for Orlando-based Bucs fans. As many as 12 luxury buses have driven fans from here to Tampa for games as part of a package that includes game tickets along with transportation in style.
While the 2020 season arrived with unprecedented fanfare and excitement, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on those continuing efforts. The road trips are on hold because the team has had to operate at a limited capacity for fans and is honoring season ticket holders as a priority. The Buccaneers conducted a soft opening with limited fans for their game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 4 and have since opened Raymond James Stadium up to 25% capacity, starting with the home contest against the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 18.
But the hope is that when things settle back down, the buses will roll along I-4 again between Orlando and Tampa.
“The response to our bus transportation program has been outstanding and has exceeded our original expectations,” Ford said. “The ability to sit in comfort and not worry about the drive to and from the game has been a really big draw for many. While we are temporarily unable to offer that service due to the pandemic, we know there is a strong level of interest in that type of convenience package and that it will thrive again once we are back to regular business in the coming seasons.”
Like the rest of the world, the Bucs are adjusting to the new world order. But they haven’t forgotten about the old way of doing business. That includes strong partnerships with a number of great companies with ties to Central Florida. Those include AdventHealth, Frito Lay and Publix.
“Our corporate sponsors have also really embraced the benefits of our reach into Central Florida,” Ford said. “We have been able to bridge the I-4 corridor and increase their activation opportunities. When you combine Tampa and Orlando, we’re the fourth-largest market in the NFL, and we’re proud of that.We encourage our partners that we have here in Tampa to also utilize our branding and activation across Central Florida, and they are all taking advantage of that benefit.”
There’s another significant business component to the feel-good story between Orlando and Tampa: the team.
The Bucs were in high activation mode during the off-season, landing a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady, who played a role in coaxing his buddy, tight end Rob Gronkowski, out of his one-year hiatus. Entering this much-anticipated season, Brady and Gronkowski had connected on 90 career touchdown passes.
You might have heard of this Brady guy in Orlando. He’s been spotted at Walt Disney World with his friend Mickey Mouse and other characters at several celebratory parades commemorating Super Bowl victories. Brady has been honored with a record four Super Bowl MVP awards (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XLIX and LI).
Brady, who turned 43 in August, signed with the Buccaneers on March 20. His two-year contract was worth $50 million in fully guaranteed money, with up to $4.5 million each year in incentives. The Bucs also signed former Jacksonville Jaguars star Leonard Fournette to further fortify their offense. Six games into the season, the Bucs were leading their division with a 4-2 record.
With Super Bowl LV scheduled for Feb. 7, 2021, in Tampa, there would be no better storybook ending than the home team defending its turf in the chase for the ultimate prize, which would be a first in NFL history.
“The goal every year is to win the Super Bowl,” Ford said. “This year, there’s an added incentive because we want to become that first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in our own stadium.”
Whatever happens the rest of the season, the Bucs want Orlando residents to know they are part of the team. They want Orlando’s business. They will continue to cultivate relationships and sponsorships and, most importantly, sign any free-agent fans out there in Orlando looking for a team to roll with in 2020 and beyond.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Ford said. “Once we get through this challenging time with the pandemic, we’re going to continue what we’ve started in Orlando as soon as we can. We will continue our organizational outreach with community-focused programming as well as additional branding and marketing activations that will reinforce our commitment to the region. We want to be there, and we look forward to celebrating our future success with Orlando and all of Central Florida.”
JASON SIEGEL is president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. Longtime Orlando sportswriter George Diaz contributed to this article.