Contention, mediocrity, and the future of Tampa Bay sports
The storied franchise of each city in the United States is different. There’s a chance they are all on par, but that’s basically a decree toward the mega-markets – the New York Yankees, Giants, Rangers, Mets, Knicks, Jets; The Chicago Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox and Cubs (congratulations, Cubbies, on your World Series championship); the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers, Kings, they-have-an-NFL-team-again-in-the Rams and Chargers. That’s talking market size and not what I’m touching on here.
The storied franchise of Tampa Bay is the Buccaneers of the NFL, that one ruling force of the region for its longevity and its beholden nature to the sport worshiped by the region.
Yeah, yeah, Florida loves itself some football. If it’s not the Bucs then the sport is dominated by college antics, high school efforts, or even the twisted spring and summer interests of Arena Football (that’s not trying to put it down or undermine it as so much admit the fact the league was adopted because of the fallacies of the Bucs in the 1990s).
The thing is there’s a very big breaking point in Tampa Bay sports history on the cusp of coming into existence. It’s already happened, really, but this enigma becomes a fact within the next 5 months. How many NFL fans would expect their NHL teams to be more apt than their NFL clubs are? How many NHL towns can boast that their hockey team is just as often a playoff contender than their NFL team?
Indeed, the Tampa Bay Lightning professional hockey club is close to matching the number of playoff berths the Buccaneers have accomplished in their 40 years of existence. The Lightning can already crow about going to the cusp/brink of a championship more often than the Bucs – the Bucs made the NFC title game three times and advanced to the Super Bowl all of once; the Bolts have been in the Eastern Conference finals four times, playing for the Stanley Cup twice, winning once.
The Bucs made the playoffs all of 10 times in their 40 year history, accomplishing it for the first time ever in 1979, and then crossing into the playoffs twice in the early 1980s (1981, 1982) before failing for 15 years. Tony Dungy resurrected the Bucs competitiveness in the mid-1990s and got them back into the playoffs in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001… He was then replaced by Jon Gruden as head coach who grabbed a Super Bowl title in 2003 (his winning season as coach was 2002) before things started growing awkward. The Bucs made it to the playoffs all of two times after the championship (2005, 2007).
For the Lightning, the franchise has existed for 24 full years (but, with thanks to work stoppages, seasons have been abbreviated twice and stopped all together once in that span). They cracked the playoffs for the first time ever in 1996 and didn’t make it again until the 21st century (2003). They won Lord Stanley’s Cup the very next year (2004) and have made the playoffs most of the years following (2006, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016).
I could elaborate on stats a bit, or about schedule shenanigans brought on by Players Association / league conflicts in both the NFL and NHL, but the technical stuff doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the Lightning has made the playoffs nine times in their history while the Buccaneers have made it 10 times. The NFL season is more brief compared to the NHL, the NFL makeup has been thicker over the years (number of franchises) than the NHL (though the NHL has grown in size; they’ll be at 31 teams next season, just shy of the NFLs 32 teams).
The Bolts are likely to compete in their 10th NHL playoff appearance in team history (subject to change under certain circumstances) while the Buccaneers…? The Bucs are at this position internally and competitively where things don’t matter besides what the market and the league provides for them. That’s not a knock on the market as-so-much a knock on the Glazer brothers who have kept a status-quo of the franchise that mimics Hugh Culverhouse; business first and competitive futility second. The major difference between Culverhouse and the Glazers is that Culverhouse was not a silent individual whereas the Glazers are mutes in control of the sport the market is in love with. If they want more at a cost to the market, they’ll get more upon demand. If the market expects from them, keep dreaming. That’s all we’re allowed to do.
It’s part of why Jeffrey Vinik, who took over the Lightning in late winter 2010, is such a champion of an owner. Vinik has his hockey team competing at the pro sports level but he is also accomplishing in-market with what he seeks and accomplishes downtown… That’s a far, far cry from the Glazers (who have owned the Bucs a much longer time than Vinik with the Lightning).
The Lightning tying and potentially topping the Bucs in playoff achievements is long overdue. Some football fans might see that as a moot decree – the NFL is much more competitive and influential than the NHL – but to strive to achieve is a grander accomplishment than accepting mediocrity.