Area football fans' anger over blacked-out Tampa Bay Buccaneers games is working its way up to the highest levels of Hillsborough County government.
The fans' frustration manifested itself in two recent meetings of the county's Charter Review Board, a group that normally deals with potential ballot measures to change the county's governing document.
But on Monday, charter board members voted to ask county commissioners to reopen negotiations with the Bucs over the Raymond James Stadium contract, arguing that if the Bucs can't broadcast their home games, the team shouldn't reap the financial rewards in the contract.
The move was largely symbolic. The Raymond James contract is between the team and the Tampa Sports Authority, an independent agency that manages the stadium. Although the county appoints five members of the sports authority's 11-person board, commissioners do not have the power to intervene in the contract.
But charter board members said what they really want is for the Bucs to televise their home games, something they are prohibited from doing by National Football League rules when a game doesn't sell out. Due largely to the recession, no Bucs home games have been televised this season.
"We just want the Buccaneers to step up to the plate and buy the empty seats to create a sell-out and allow Tampa Bay to support the Bucs," said Ralph Fisher, the charter board member who made the motion to send the message.
By dumping the matter in commissioners' laps, the charter board hopes to publicize details of the stadium contract, thus shaming team officials into buying up unsold tickets in the future.
Although the stadium was constructed with taxpayer money, the Bucs derive most of the financial benefits.
The team gets all revenue related to Bucs games, including parking and concessions, plus the first $2 million generated each year from other events at the stadium. After the $2 million threshold is hit, the team splits the remaining proceeds with the Tampa Sports Authority.
"Some of our members thought the contract was sort of a sweetheart deal," said charter board chairman Mitchell Thrower. "And in this economic situation, it wouldn't hurt to approach the Bucs."
Last year, the Bucs bought unsold tickets at 34 cents on the dollar, thus avoiding blackouts. But team spokesman Jonathan Grella said the Bucs couldn't repeat the generosity this year because unsold tickets number in the tens of thousands for each of the 10 home games.
"That's proven to be an unsustainable practice, financially speaking," Grella said.
The Bucs have tried to make their games affordable, Grella said, pricing some tickets at $25 and offering pay plans for season tickets.
"It's disappointing, unfortunate and even confusing when some people choose to ignore the many good things we are doing to ensure that the bond between ourselves and this community remains rock-solid during these hard times," Grella said.
County Commissioner Les Miller said he also has heard the frustration with blacked out games, but said he believes there's little the commission can do.
"We are not the authority to renegotiate the contract," Miller said. "We can pass on our sentiments about what the people are saying about the games being blacked out, but we cannot give directions to the Tampa Sports Authority to renegotiate the contract."
Nor is the sports authority likely to seek a renegotiated contract on its own, said Executive Director Eric Hart. The contract secures the $156 million bond issue used to build the stadium. Payments on the bonds are made with a percentage of a half penny sales tax approved by voters in 1996.
"Nobody at the Tampa Sports Authority wants to have any legal arguments," Hart said. "We benefit economically from the Buccaneers. Our whole feeling with this is we have an agreement ... and we're fulfilling our obligations under that agreement."
The contract expires Jan. 31, 2028.