After four consecutive losses, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could use some divine intervention.
The timing is right: This Sunday, there will be plenty of praying going on at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers will host their first "Faith and Football" postgame event for ticketholders after the game against the St. Louis Rams. It will feature a concert by Dove Award-winning Christian band The Newsboys, an inspirational Christmas-themed message from popular evangelical leader Scott Dawson, a performance by Christian rapper KJ-52 and a personal testimony by Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
"Opportunities like this don't often present themselves," McCoy said in an interview Monday. "I plan to take advantage of this time to tell the fans why it's important to be a good example and a positive influence. I'm called to live a life that pleases the Lord, and I'm not afraid to declare that."
That's a message that often gets lost amid news reports of professional athletes getting in trouble with the law, using banned substances, and acting out on the field or in their personal lives. And for some of those who publicly embrace their faith, it can sometimes backfire. Just ask Tim Tebow.
The Bucs become one of the league's first teams to host a religious-themed promotion, and the only one to tie it in with the Christmas season.
The purpose: To offer a family-friendly event and tap into the area's vast church community. Tickets will start as low as $35 with special discounts, such as buy one adult ticket, get one free youth ticket (for age 16 and younger).
The idea was proposed by Paul Rothenberg, who was hired by the Bucs in May as chief ticketing sales officer. Previously, he was a vice president at Universal Orlando, where he spent a decade helping coordinate the annual Rock the Universe weekend, a popular Christian music festival that takes place in September.
"The park experience has been very popular," Rothenberg says. "Associating it with a professional sports event is the next step. When it comes to the fan experience, the Bucs are willing to leave no stone unturned."
The Glazers, owners of the Bucs, are Jewish. Their endorsement of the "Faith and Football" event shows they are "very creative and innovative" in seeking new ways to engage with the community, says Jonathan Grella, the team's director of communications.
"In the economic times we're living in, sports teams have to redouble their efforts in reaching out to fans," he says.
Sunday's event caps off a season-long effort to do just that. Other game-day themes this year included Breast Cancer Awareness month, a celebration to honor the 200th consecutive start of defensive back Ronde Barber, the annual throwback game in which the Bucs wear their original orange uniforms, a tribute to the 2002 Super Bowl championship team, and a military supply drive during "Salute to Service" week.
Also, the team just announced it will reduce some 2013 ticket prices.
Dawson, of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Scott Dawson Evangelistic Association, says he's been leading "Faith at Home" events at minor-league baseball parks for 10 years. This past season, he added two Major League Baseball teams, the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals.
This will be his first National Football League event.
"You've got people who will go to a game but not to a church. We bring the message to them, and if they're open to it, they can hear it in a setting where they're comfortable," he says.
For those who have questions, Christian counselors will be stationed at the stadium.
Dawson says he intends to address "the real meaning of Christmas" and inspire the audience with a message of hope and peace. Given last week's tragedy in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were gunned down at an elementary school, "the timing is right for that message. People are in a lot of pain and despair now."
Dawson says his team has been making personal visits here and reaching out through social media to churches from Ocala to Sarasota since September. Response so far has been "very enthusiastic," though he did not know how many tickets have been sold. The Bucs don't release those figures until game day.
Fans with season tickets, club seating and in group blocks will get wristbands to give them field access for the concert by The Newsboys. And all fans attending the game will get a Christmas ornament from the Buccaneers.
McCoy, who prays at midfield before and after all games, can't wait to tell his story in a setting usually reserved for his athletic abilities. He says he appreciates the professional sports platform "given to him by God," but he doesn't want people to regard him solely as a football player. That's what he learned from the example set by his role models, Lee Roy Selmon and Reggie White, two NFL legends who openly professed their faith and lived a life of Christian service outside their careers.
"Football is what I do for a living," he says. "What I am first and foremost is a believer and follower of Christ."
That faith was tested for two seasons when McCoy, the Bucs' 2010 first-round draft pick, had to sit out multiple games due to injuries. Now he and fellow teammates are dealing with successive losses in a season that began with promise. But he doesn't let adversity tear him down – a lesson he will share Sunday.
"Don't be a knucklehead and get too full of yourself," he says. "Your mindset has to be in the right place. And don't just talk about being a good example. It's the walk, not the talk; that is the real thing."
To get the group discount, call Tampa Bay Bucs Sales at (813) 870-2700 ext. 2533