Publish date:


A television football season that does not take us regularly to Florida is as hard to imagine as an Annette Funicello Film Festival without bikinis or beach balls. What would the Christmas season be, for example, without Anita Bryant singing the national anthem from all those Orange, Gator and Tangerine-Citrus Bowls? And can't we trace many of today's sporting hypes back to Miami in the early '60s, when the networks and the NFL conspired to give us the Playoff Bowl, that meaningless postseason game in which two second-place teams delivered third-rate efforts to benumbed viewers who kept mumbling to themselves, "Why am I watching this?"

While the playing fields of Florida have been the sites of some strange games, telecasts in the state have been the cause of some even more unusual events. Seven years ago fans across the country watched both Super Bowl III from Miami—the one in which the Jets defeated Baltimore XVI-VII—and some peculiar local crowd reaction. Instead of cheering for the Jets—a team representing the AFL, of which the hometown Dolphins were also members—people in the Orange Bowl were rooting fiercely for the Colts. The explanation was that television had shown almost all Baltimore games in Florida for years, and many fans there had yet to switch their allegiance from the Colts to the pre-Shula Miami team. But once Floridians lined up behind the Dolphins, they did so with a vengeance. It was a Miami lawyer, Ellis Rubin, who first challenged the NFL's TV blackout policy. He wanted to make it possible for Dolphin fans, including himself, to watch their team's sold-out home games—which at the time meant virtually all of them.

The NFL has announced that next year it would add two new franchises, Seattle and Tampa Bay. (The new Florida team is named after a body of water instead of a city to encourage people to drop in from other municipalities on the bay, such as St. Petersburg and Clearwater.) Both Seattle and Tampa Bay seem fully capable of supporting a team but, because of a peculiar television situation, the latter may have problems initially. Ever since the Dolphins opened shop in 1966, their games have been televised to most areas of the stale, including Tampa Bay. When Miami became a pro football city, Tampa Bay made up the 34th largest television market in the country. Today it is 17th, outranking Kansas City, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Denver, San Diego and New Orleans. But a major difference between Tampa Bay and the franchises in those other markets is that none of them has to compete against a team as successful and as visible as the Dolphins.

The entrance fee into the NFL usually includes a few seasons at the bottom of the standings. Only four expansion teams have won as many as three games in their first season, while five new clubs have managed one victory—or none at all. Although the league will make better players available in this expansion draft than in the previous ones, no Terry Metcalfs or O.J.s will be asked to move to Seattle or Tampa Bay. That means the people in the Tampa Bay area who suffered through the slow development of the Dolphins only a decade ago now face the same prospect once more. How many of them will be willing to do it again?

Perhaps not many, especially since they are going to have the alternative of watching most of Miami's games on TV. The Tampa area currently is an open market, which means the networks can televise Dolphin games into Buccaneer country. For TV purposes, the Dolphins are considered a "four o'clock team." Weather, Miami's highly successful record and wide national interest in the Dolphins prompted television to schedule six of Miami's seven home games this year either as the second part of national Sunday afternoon doubleheaders or as Monday night games. If this continues into next season—and it probably will—some Miami games will be on TV in the Tampa Bay area at the same time the Buccaneers are playing. On those occasions, several of the 72,000 seats in Tampa Stadium are going to be empty. Even if the Buccaneer games start early enough for fans to return home in time for a 4 p.m. Dolphin kickoff, a lot of people may find the TV game excuse enough to stay away from the stadium. And the Buccaneers will not be helped by the fact that during the next two years Miami plays Baltimore, New England and Buffalo—three of football's more interesting young teams—twice each and also has Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Houston, Dallas and St. Louis on its schedule.

Bill Marcum, the 41-year-old director of marketing and public relations for the Buccaneers, is well aware of the problem, but he also has promoted 14 pro football games in the area and feels that Tampa Bay will become a successful franchise. "We have about two million potential fans to draw from," he says. "We did very well over the years with our exhibition games, averaging 42,000. So far we have sold more than 19,000 season tickets, and we still have about two more weeks to wait for all the answers to the first mailing we sent out."

Marcum's enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Tampa Bay-Miami situation could turn into a major headache for Pete Rozelle, since it is the commissioner's office and the networks that work out the NFL's schedules. Ultimately, they may have more control over the Buccaneers' prospects than the local promoters will.