How Tampa Bay is experiencing unprecedented success in sports

Nate Lechner, R2 Op ed Editor

For the first nine years of my life, I lived in Tampa, Florida and attended many Tampa Bay sports games. While these games were enjoyable for me at a young age, they were not filled with a lot of success for the three professional sports teams in the area, the Lightning (NHL), Buccaneers (NFL) and Rays (MLB). 

From 2005-2019, Tampa Bay sports teams had a reputation for being good, but not good enough, or, in some cases, having some of the worst records in sports history. 

The past 15 years have unfortunately been full of tough losses and disappointing seasons for the Tampa Bay loyals. However, during a year of such adversity and uncertainty Tampa Bay sports are better than ever. 

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning have had the most consistent success of the three teams in the past decade and a half; however, they have never been able to get over the hump. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, the Lightning qualified for the NHL playoffs eight times and even managed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they are best known for their historic collapse during the 2019 playoffs. 

In that year, after tying the NHL record for most wins in the regular season with 62, many people believed that the Lightning would be able to have another strong playoff performance and hopefully make another run at the Stanley Cup. However, this was not the case. In a shocking turn of events, the Lightning were swept in the first round by the eight seed Columbus Blue Jackets and became the laughing stock of the NHL for the year. This failure of the Lightning was nothing new for Tampa Bay fans due to previous playoff blunders but this one was exceptionally tragic because of the quality of the team.. 

2020 proved to be a much different season for the Lightning in more ways than one. In one of the wildest seasons in NHL history, the Lightning were able to go to the NHL bubble in Toronto and eventually Edmonton, Canada and win the Stanley Cup, exorcising all of their demons from the 2019 season. This was an incredible feeling for fans and an even better season for the players, who looked excited not just to win the cup, but to finally shut down all of the chatter that they couldn’t win in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Similarly to the Lightning, the Bucs have not seen much success since winning Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. In fact, the team has had only two playoff appearances since winning the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2007. 

The team’s biggest failures in the last 15 years include blowing a 35-14 lead in a game to the Indianapolis Colts in 2003, drafting a kicker with a second-round pick in 2016 named Roberto Aguayo who was waived a year later and, most recently, a historically bad season by quarterback Jameis Winston in 2019, in which he became the first player in NFL history to throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. 

Heading into 2020 it looked like the Bucs were destined for mediocrity with very little hope for the immediate future. However, everything changed when the Bucs signed one of the most marketable players in the NFL: Tom Brady. 

Almost immediately after Brady came to Tampa, the fan base was enthralled by the new aura surrounding the team and the city. Everything from t-shirts to flags to hats were sold in Tampa featuring Brady’s face on the Buccaneers logo; Brady even went so far as to attempt to trademark “Tompa Bay” and “Tampa Brady.” Brady quickly became the most popular athlete in Tampa Bay as his number 12 jersey sold in record numbers.

Since then, Brady’s impact on the field has been evident. The team is playing with a swagger and confidence that I’ve never seen, and the Buccaneers look like the most complete team in the NFL at 5-2. Although the first two weeks of the season were a little rough for Brady, he has reclaimed his reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. In his last five matchups, Brady has averaged 290.8 passing yards per game and thrown for 15 touchdowns with only one interception, with a passer rating of 111, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s not so bad for a 43-year-old quarterback in the 21st season of his career. 

After years of poor quarterback play and painful mediocrity in Tampa Bay, the Bucs are ready to compete with the best teams in the NFL and possibly become the first team in league history to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. 

Tampa Bay Rays: The highs of the Tampa Bay Rays have been so high, such as making it to the World Series in 2008 and winning post-season series in 2013 and 2019, while the lows have been incredibly low, such as the team’s poor attendance numbers. In 2019 the team finished the regular season with the second-lowest home attendance in MLB for the second consecutive year. An average of about 14,552 fans per game attended the team’s 81 home games at Tropicana Field, according to Baseball Reference. Owner Stuart Sternberg has also frequently discussed the idea of moving the team to Montreal, which would be extremely painful for Tampa Bay fans. Despite the roller coaster ride of the franchise in the last 15 years, the team has always managed to stay the course even when they lacked the assets and star power that many other MLB teams have.

Unfortunately, You would be hard-pressed to find someone outside the Tampa Bay area who could name any Rays player prior to the 2020 season. The Rays have built their team in an unconventional way for a modern-day MLB team. Typically, the most successful teams in MLB are built through large payrolls; the New York Yankees had a payroll of $254.19 million and the Los Angeles Dodgers had a payroll of $227.83 million in 2020. The Rays, however, had a smaller payroll of $28.3 million in 2020 and their unpredictable success represents a different type of winning in the MLB: a focus on analytics. Throughout the 2020 season, Rays Manager Kevin Cash, based his in-game strategy more on statistics and probability than the overall talent of his players. For example, Cash rarely let a starting pitcher pitch more than six innings because he felt that they would naturally be easier to hit a thread through a batting order, no matter how well they were pitching. 

Entering the 2020 MLB season, many people thought that the Rays would be competitive, but expected them to once again play little brother to their division rival New York Yankees in the American League East. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, the Yankees suffered some key injuries and went through a few rough stretches, allowing Tampa to not only win the division but lock up the first seed in the AL Playoffs. 

The Rays were able to make a run through the Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees, and the Houston Astros, to make the second World Series in franchise history. 

Unfortunately, the magic of analytics could not help the Rays best another baseball powerhouse and the team fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in six games, with the final out coming on Tuesday night. 

Many people in the baseball community will look at 2020 and say the Rays fell short because their small-scale approach to the game didn’t lead to a championship in the end. However, I saw a team that had confidence in every decision they made and proved that you don’t need to empty your wallet in order to build a successful baseball team.

Although professional sports in 2020 have looked different this year, Tampa has found new life in their teams and I am extremely excited to see the future of the Lightning, Bucs, and Rays as we move out of the global pandemic.