Raymond James Stadium was opened in 1999 to replace Tampa Stadium, which had been nicknamed the Big Sombrero due to its unique shape. Sadly, the new venue was constructed in the traditional rectangular style, and is rather dull from the outside. A walk around the perimeter reveals little of interest, with ramps at each corner perhaps the most notable architectural feature.
Despite being a relatively recent addition to the stadium scene, Raymond James Stadium lacks many of the bells and whistles that are featured in newer venues. It is a simple place with one overwhelming theme – the Buccaneers. Although the USF Bulls also play here, the pirate motif is all you will see from the moment you arrive outside the stadium. Few if any teams take their nickname to this extreme, and it does make a visit to RJS quite enjoyable despite the rather disappointing team that calls the stadium home.
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The first thing you will notice here is the concession stand names, particularly on the lower level, where they all evoke piracy in some form or other. Swashbuckler Bar, Endzone Galley, Red Sail Spice, Pizza Plank and Captains Grill are all creative ways to present what is mostly typical stadium fare. Even the concession maps get in on the action with "Perish Your Hunger" headlines. When you view the menus, you will note two prices: one for those who are season ticket holders and another dubbed regular, which is about 20% higher than the season ticket holder price.
The Buccaneers revamped their concession offerings for the 2014 season and tried for a more local theme. Most obvious is Taste of Tampa, whose $11 Cubaneer, the local take on the Cuban sandwich (typically prepared with ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles, and mustard), is recommended. DeSoto Deli (Ham and Cheese Boca Dillo is the favorite here) and Bay Burgers (whose Burger 76 and Fries runs $10) also demonstrate some of the regional culinary options.
The upper concourse is much blander, in both naming and offerings. Remembering that you cannot pass from the east side to the west once you have made your way to the upper deck, you will be limited to just a few concession stands such as Grid Iron Grill, Goal Line Stand, and First Down Deli. All of these have more basic eats such as a ¼ lb. Bratwurst for $7.25, a Classic Angus Burger for $6.50, loaded nachos for $9, or chicken tenders for $9. If you have youngsters, Captain Fear's Treasure Meal comes with a hot dog, goldfish crackers or apple slices, and a juice box for $5.50. My advice is to enter when gates open 90 minutes before kickoff and wander the lower concourse for the better variety.
Beverages include large beers for $7.50, a relative bargain these days, while a souvenir suds is $9, the same as an aluminum bottle. Both Anheuser-Busch and Miller/Coors options are available, with some "smaller" breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada on sale if you look hard enough. Coke products comprise your soda offerings, with regular soda at $4.50 or bottomless souvenir cups at $7. There is a designated driver program that gives you a regular size soft drink for free, so sign up if you don't intend to imbibe.
The lack of end zone seats gives the stadium an open feel, which is perfect given the beautiful weather that usually accompanies a Sunday afternoon Bucs game. The breeze off Tampa Bay can cool those in the upper deck, though do bring your sunscreen and a hat, particularly if you are sitting on the east side of the stadium, which is in the sun throughout the entire game. Naturally, this is the visitors sideline as well, though that seems to present little advantage these days.
The pirate theme again dominates, with interns dressed in swashbuckling costumes greeting fans on the south side being your first hint that you are at a Buccaneers game. The plaza here is where you can spend some time before gates open; there are a number of sponsor tents and a live band to get you in the mood for football. The ticket office is also here should you be in need of admission, though better bargains can be found a few minutes west where the secondary sellers are located.
Inside, the marauder motif continues with the concession stand names and other signage, and of course, the most famous element in the stadium, the Jolly Roger. This giant pirate ship is moored behind the north end zone, also known as Buccaneer Cove. Cannons are fired from here whenever the Bucs score (one shot per point) or enter the red zone. As well, those on the ship (usually a private party or members of the team staff) throw beads and t-shirts to those in the north end zone seats whenever the song "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)" is played. Fans are not allowed on the ship during games, but you can walk around and check out the animatronic parrot that sits on the stern, insulting those who happen to be wearing visitor colors or chatting amiably with hometown supporters. This is really a unique experience. Again, get there early to enjoy it to its fullest.
The seats are a dark red, with the middle club seats a contrasting grey. Even if you have lower deck seats, head to the upper deck to take in the view from atop the stadium, where the red seats combine beautifully with the clear blue sky.
The scoreboards at each end of the stadium are very dated when compared to some of the newer technology in places such as Jacksonville and Dallas, and they barely suffice for replays. If you happen to be a child of the 70s, you will recognize the CBS NFL Today theme played during most TV timeouts, something that had me smiling when usually I would be frowning, as the number of TV breaks during an NFL game has gotten out of control.
There are no programs for sale; instead a dollar gets you a Sunday edition of the Tampa Tribune and a roster card. Fans of collectibles will not be happy with this arrangement, but it does provide reading material during all those TV timeouts.
Surrounded by parking lots, there is little to see here and you will be driving as soon as the game ends. The Yankees spring training facility and home to the Tampa Yankees of the Florida State League is across the street at Steinbrenner Field, but a doubleheader is not possible outside of the NFL preseason.
There are a few bars nearby though that merit an extra point, including Lee Roy Selmon's a couple of miles southwest. Founded by the late Buccaneers Hall-of-Famer, this is one of seven locations in the greater Tampa Bay area, with another in Fort Myers.
Another option is the Brick House Tavern just south of I-275 on Dale Mabry Way, a spacious sports bar with a very good menu, very attractive waitresses, and a wide selection of draft beer.
It is hard to criticize fans who stay away when their team is horrid and leave a lot of empty seats. After all, we pay to be entertained. Even then, those that show spend most of the game complaining about each play that goes wrong, a trait that becomes tiring quickly, especially when the criticism is far from accurate.
For Buccaneers games, fans cheer first downs as the P.A. announcer shouts "First down Tampa...." and the fans respond "Baaaaayyyyy." As well, many fans bring creative signs that make fun of their team's dire situation, which adds some humor to the occasion. In my particular section during my most recent visit, a number of fans felt the need to move around during the action, which can be mildly annoying, and I left Raymond James Stadium without a particularly strong feeling towards the fans either way.
Parking is $25 at all lots except #13 off Columbus Drive just west of Dale Mabry Highway, which is only $15. Another advantage of this lot is that you will meet the scalpers on your way to the stadium. Getting out of any lot seems quite easy here, with cops directing traffic and lanes closed off so that you can merge onto the street immediately.
Don't bother with transit here. There are buses, but they are infrequent on Sundays and not worth the hassle. Note that I-275 is undergoing construction through Tampa and many off ramps are closed, so plan your route carefully if you are using that highway.
One problem I had here was being told that my camera bag was not allowed. When I say camera bag, I mean a tiny bag for a small point-and-shoot camera that is smaller than the clutches that women are allowed to take in. I was allowed entry after taking out my camera and folding the bag and sticking it in my pocket, but having attended a game in 32 stadiums last season without a problem, I know that small cameras are permitted with their bags, and the staff here should be instructed on this fact.
Inside, concourses are wide and you can move freely with the exception of Buccaneer Cove, which gets crowded with fans admiring the Jolly Roger. There are two upper deck concourses that are not connected, so if you want to see every angle of the stadium, you will need to go up two sets of escalators and down two ramps.
This is one of the cheaper places to see the NFL and I have enjoyed my visits to at Raymond James Stadium even though the team is in the midst of several years of decrepitude. Tickets at the box office range from $42 for upper deck sideline seats to $119 for lower seats along the side but nearer to the end zone than midfield. Note that you will pay more to sit on the partially shaded west side of the stadium.
You can always get in for less if you deal with those with extra tickets before reaching the box office. In the middle of December, when the Northeast and Midwest are dealing with freezing temperatures, Raymond James Stadium offers a respite from the winter doldrums. Sure the team might not be the most exciting, but you shouldn't complain when enjoying an afternoon of football wearing sunglasses and shorts.
One little-known extra at is the Bucs offices, a couple of blocks east along Martin Luther King Blvd. You can visit anytime during office hours and see a small display that includes a bit on the history of the franchise, as well as their Super Bowl trophy. There is a guardhouse here, but you will be allowed to park once you tell them what you are there for.
Of course, the Jolly Roger and the overall pirate theme merits a point here.
Finally, there is a Tampa Sports Club Hall of Fame in the club area next to section 230. Although most fans can't visit here as it is on the club level, you might be able to talk your way inside after the game.
The Buccaneers stick with their tried and true theme and it works very well. You will never wonder where you are when at a Bucs game. It is unfortunate that the team and its fan base is suffering, but all the better for the sports traveler who can enjoy a unique NFL experience at a relatively reasonable cost.
Tampa Bay has had a long, diverse pro football past, from the winless inaugural season and 0-23 start under John McKay to the Super Bowl-winning team under John Gruden. Currently, the team is struggling to find an identity in the marketplace, but that won't prevent you from having a fantastic time at a Buccaneers game.
Raymond James Stadium offers a little bit of everything in a venue such as large open areas for gathering, character touches that offer variety, and an overwhelming sensation that will provide a swashbuckling good time. In being the final stop in my lengthy pursuit to see a pro football game in each NFL venue, Raymond James Stadium lies among my top ten of places to attend a pro football game.
Since its construction in 1998, Tampa's Raymond James Stadium has been regarded as one of the greatest fan experiences you can have in the NFL.
From the music, to the videos on the two jumbotrons, to the uniqueness of the Pirate ship, the experience at "Ray Jay" definitely lives up to the reputation.
The iconic pirate ship is the highlight here, but I like the overall stadium design, with ramps at each corner to take you up to the top. The souvenir ice cream helmet was the first I had seen, but at $10 was a bit too much for me. Getting in and out seemed quite easy, helped by many fans leaving a blowout loss early. Fans are passionate and suffering as of 2013, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit. Tickets have never easier to acquire here.
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