Tampa Bay: The Hub Of The Sports World
In late March of 2020, as COVID was beginning to spread and ravage every fabric of our lives, Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time, announced he was leaving the New England Patriots after two decades for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Little did I know it at the time, but since that major signing by the Bucs the Tampa Bay area has gone on to become the hub of the sports world over the last year. Mainly when it comes to the last six or so months as sports has attempted to make things work in the time of COVID.
Tampa Bay is basically the the western portion of central Florida, the bay itself extending between Hillsborough and Pinellas county, fast growing regions of the state that may not be as populous as a Miami but actually have a bigger media market share than the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. Its politically a key area to the state as it remains competitive and in the future could be the key to how Democrats cancel out some of their recent Miami issues. The Tampa Bay area is usually known for beaches, seaside attractions, a few smaller theme parks that hold world famous roller coasters, an annual Gasparilla event that celebrates pirate history, thunderstorms, fine cigars and breweries, and um…some popular adult entertainment facilities downtown. But its not that necessarily well known for being a proper sports town save for hosting some major football championship games.
Part of that has to do with the region being a popular retirement destination, and snowbirds come from bigger cities with more popular and well known teams they won’t quit rooting for. Another part of that has to do with the curse of each of its team historically struggling to win in its first few years. Granted its not the only area of the country to have more than a few sports teams and get little media attention over it, but there’s not really much of an identity to being a Tampa Bay sports fan. Even cursed sports cities can at least market towards and poke fun at themselves over their futility. But Tampa Bay sports is not something the average sports fan is thinking of until one of their teams forces you to pay attention to their play.
So why do I claim authority over being able to talk about Tampa Bay sports? Well because I am a Tampa Bay sports fan myself and I can tell you that some “long suffering” sports fans out there don’t know how easy they have it. You Cleveland fans can at least have some fun over your failures, you Cubs and Red Sox fans could suffer decades of no championships as the rest of the country roots for you to finally win the big one, but Tampa Bay sports fans have no identity whatsoever in the conscious of great sport cities of America. We’re afterthoughts in every sense of the word. It probably doesn’t help that the only team to have won multiple championships is a hockey team (I love my hockey, but let’s face it its a niche sport), our football team has been nicknamed “the Suck-aneers” and has been long remembered as a team where careers go to die, and our baseball team has a long running slam against it for low attendance inside one of the worst received sports parks in American sports. But through it all true fans of the teams like myself have not wavered and rooted them on to succeed.
And now here we are almost a year after Brady signed with the Bucs and we’ve won a Stanley Cup, gotten to a World Series, and will not just host the next Super Bowl but play in it as well in a historic first! And its not even done after that, because WWE has made a home here since last Summer and will be hosting a special two night WrestleMania 37 event in April. Oh and by the way the area’s Soccer team also just recently went on a championship run. The Tampa Bay region has become the hub of the sports world, the NBA being the sole major league not to be touched and that’s because Tampa doesn’t have an NBA team! (Should note I’m a Miami Heat fan so I actually got to see my NBA team do as well as my other teams). The story of sports from 2020 to 2021 will not be able to be written without a mention of Tampa Bay’s sports teams’ presence in the timespan.
This isn’t the last time this has happened, in 1980 the city of Philadelphia got to see all of their major teams make championship runs, winning the World Series and making it to the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Super Bowl. But even they didn’t host a Super Bowl and Wrestlemania in the same timespan (To be fair Wrestlemania did not exist then). This is a rare thing to watch from one city in such a short time and as someone who has backed and will continue to back this area’s sports teams I’m enjoying the ride. As far as I’m concerned this is once in a lifetime sort of stuff and I wanted to make note of every bit of it to give this feat proper respect.
Part 1: The Bolts Win The Cup
It might surprise you that this Tampa Bay resident, born in the tropical island of Puerto Rico, actually considers the NHL his favorite sports league. Out of all the major team leagues it is in my mind the most unpredictable and fun to watch. I’ve been to a few hockey games and I can say that for me it is the most exciting of all the sports to watch live. And thus I am a die-hard Lightning fan, following them since 2003 when I started to pay attention to hockey as I was leaving middle school. A year after that initial discovery of my love for the sport the Lightning went on an amazing run to win their first Stanley Cup – you know the greatest trophy in all sports; winning a pulse pounding modern classic seven game series that included an unforgettable (and controversial) game six classic win on the road to force that deciding game in the first place. The city went crazy for hockey and Hockey Bay USA was born. For the record Flames fans, it wasn’t in.
Around a decade later the team had rebuilt and made themselves into an up and comer destined for a championship. The Bolts as we call them made it to their second ever Stanley Cup Finals in their franchise history in 2015, but the young team found themselves choking away a 2-1 series lead to lose in six to a Chicago Blackhawks dynasty that was in their twilight year. While heartbroken, I was hopeful this team was built to last and would get back to the finals soon after. What followed was years of frustrating playoff chokes, including two out of three years of not winning two seven game conference finals’ series in which they had a 3-2 series lead each time. But the real kicker was in 2019, when the team wrecked the league on a mission to finally live up to their potential and tied for a record 62 wins in a regular season. They were the top seed in all of hockey, and in the first round of the playoffs I watched in terror as they got swept in the first round by a lowly eight seeded Blue Jackets team. The sports world mocked this historic collapse and a tweet by the team’s account acknowledging fans didn’t want to hear anything positive about the season after the loss became a sports social media meme.
It was starting to feel like this team would never reach that mountain top. In frustration I called them the NHL’s choke kings on social media. Worse yet they started the 2019-2020 season stumbling out of the gate to a mediocre 17-17 start (If you count OT losses as an actual loss). But they bounced back, going on long winning streaks and finishing as the second seed in the conference by the time the playoffs started in a bubble the league created for the players just as the NBA had done. They dispatched the very team that knocked them out of the playoffs the previous year in the Blue Jackets in just five games, took care of the hated Bruins in five as well, and then beat the Islanders in six to make the franchise’s third Stanley Cup Finals ever.
In the finals, they faced a young and hungry Dallas Stars team and the Bolts were suddenly in the position the Blackhawks were a few years prior as the favored veterans trying to outlast an up and comer. They lost the first game and suddenly the past playoff failures started to flash in every Lighting fan’s minds. But after tying the series, something magical happened in game three. Steven Stamkos, the injured captain of the team, came onto the ice and scored a goal before going back on the inactive list like he was Kirk Gibson hitting that homerun ball in game one of the 1988 World Series. The Lightning ended up winning the series in a hard fought six games and finally earned that cup. Fireworks went off in the empty arena as players hoisted the trophy, and I was at home drinking my Rum and Coke in celebration. As Hockey Bay USA celebrated with a championship boat parade, we couldn’t have known this was just the start of something special for the whole area.
Part 2: The Rays Win The Pennant
You may want to sit down for this one but…Tampa Bay Rays fans exist. Yes I know we don’t show up to the games in large numbers until the playoffs, and yes I know we have plenty of Yankees fans in Tampa and Phillies fans in Saint Petersburg that show up to our games rooting against the home team. Yes I know the team has one of the worst ball parks in sports. Yes I know they have struggled to find the support from the city or its residents to build a new one. Yes I know that at this rate we’re probably going to see this team move to Montreal sometime in the near future. But damn it I have been rooting for these guys through thick and thin and I’ll be damned if I give up on them.
The Rays started their existence in the league as laughingstock, posting some all time bad losing seasons and being easy pickings for the big boys they share divisions with in the Yankees and Red Sox. Then in 2008 after changing their name, logos, uniforms, and colors the team went on a magical Mets 69 like run that saw them make it all the way to the World Series – but unfortunately they were downed by the Phillies in five. Regardless the team started to become a perennial winner, winning 90 games typically and making several playoff runs before inevitably they ran out of steam not once making it back to the Fall Classic.
But of late the team has been rebuilt, young, and with a young manager at the helm. Two years back they won more than 90 games for the first time after a few rebuilding seasons, a year before they made a playoff run, and in 2020 the team was the top seed in the American League. After easily taking care of a lowly Blue Jays team, the Rays took on the mighty Yankees and in a tough fought five game series took down “The Evil Empire” to advance to the ALCS. There they faced the defending AL champion Astros, romping to a 3-0 series lead before the Astros romped themselves to tie the series and force a seventh game. In a competitive finale, the Rays outlasted the champs and won their second pennant in their franchise history. Just weeks after the Lightning celebrated bringing a Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay, the Rays were in the World Series.
Unfortunately the Rays found themselves in the role of the Stars going up against the MLB’s version of the Lightning in the Dodgers who were also trying to overcome their own recent playoff woes. I knew as soon as we drew the Dodgers that we were in trouble. The Dodgers ended another Rays Cinderella run to the World Series, taking them out in six. While coming up short once again wasn’t fun, I was very proud of the Rays for winning a pennant and giving me and the Tampa Bay area more fun as sports fans to help distract us from the pandemic woes and represent us well following a Stanley Cup run by our hockey team. I hope one day I’ll get to see my Rays win the championship – even if its from afar down here in Tampa while they play in Montreal.
Part 3: Brady Takes The Bucs To The Super Bowl
And now we come full circle (almost) to the man who started this incredible run – Tom Brady. While obviously I was excited for my Bucs to sign such a big time legend (Though it put me in a weird position as a long suffering Pats hater), I was concerned whether Brady still had what it took to take a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 13 years to just its second Super Bowl in franchise history (The Bucs winning a Super Bowl eighteen years ago). Not to mention the questions around how COVID would affect the league, Brady having little time to practice with his teammates and getting to learn a new system, and the fact no team whose stadium was going to host the Super Bowl had ever made it to the big game.
The Bucs season started with an awful game in New Orleans, losing easily as many wondered if Brady no longer had it. After winning three straight, an embarrassing miscommunication regarding downs and timeouts lead to a gut punch of a loss in Chicago. That was followed by three straight wins again, but then the team lost three out of four games heading into the bye week. That included another blowout loss to New Orleans and a comeback that just came up short against the defending champion Chiefs. The Bucs were heading into the final month with a mediocre 7-5 record and I was very skeptical they could do much with it. But I guess that’s where Brady shows you why some consider him the G.O.A.T.
The Bucs won four straight games, including a major come from behind win in Atlanta, and made it into the playoffs at 11-5 as the top wildcard. They went to Washington D.C just days after the capitol riots and won on the road, then they went to New Orleans and effectively retired (if the rumors are true) Drew Brees, before going into the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and stunning the top seeded Packers who have the likely league MVP as their quarterback. Now they will come back home to become the first team to host a Super Bowl and they will do it against the last team they lost to – the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.
As of this writing, the Chiefs are a field goal favorite (Frankly I think that’s way too low for them), and I have to agree with Vegas on that. My heart is with my Bucs and I will be rooting them on, but I just don’t know how they beat a Chiefs team that seems destined to repeat. But then again I’ve been skeptical all year about them and the Bucs might just do so again. But regardless whether they win or lose, Brady taking the Bucs to the Super Bowl completes an incredible run by Tampa Bay’s sports teams, featuring them in three of sport’s biggest championship competitions. Win or lose, I’m proud of my Bucs for following up the Lightning and Rays with their own deep playoff run. Once again giving this area something to distract them during these tough times.
Part 4: The Sports World Descends On Tampa Bay
Forget the fact the Bucs are in it, the fact is Tampa Bay was going to be the center of the sports world regardless come Super Bowl Sunday. Kind of fitting that after months of Tampa Bay’s sports teams making it to championship competition, the area will be hosting arguably the biggest game in all of sports in Raymond James Stadium. Putting a capstone to months of the bay area making its mark on sports. But whether the Bucs win or not, the Super Bowl is not the last act of this amazing run.
Believe it or not, the Tampa Bay area, which has hosted plenty Super Bowls before this one, has never hosted a Wrestlemania event. It was finally going to become a reality last year, with a pirate theme and dreams of an amazing stage for the event around that theme being marketed. After all we’re talking about a literal pirate ship with cannons at the stadium, the possibilities are endless for a company that puts on such an extravagant event. But COVID struck and the event was forced into a warehouse in Orlando, making for the strangest, most bizarre, surreal, and even cinematic Wrestlemania in history.
However WWE has announced that after making Tampa Bay their home base for their events over the last Summer, Fall, and into the Winter they will try again to have Wrestlemania in Raymond James Stadium – just two months after the area hosts the Super Bowl. Plus it will be a two night event! Making the Tampa Bay region able to claim to have taken part in the Stanley Cup Finals, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the version of all of those things for wrestling in less than a year. I’m not sure when we’ll ever see the stars line up that way again for a sports area anytime soon.
When you’re a Tampa Bay sports fan, there’s not much you can brag about. Not much attention to get from the sports media big wigs either. But the stars have align of late to make the area the epicenter of the sports world. I’ve jokingly started to refer to as lately as “Champa Bay”. This ride is almost over, but its been a fun one. And I thank all of the area’s sports teams for giving me and others a distraction from such a tough time in our history. Oh…and go Bucs.