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Official Review by Jim Dietrich, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Tampa Bay Storm, for lack of a better analogy, are the New York Yankees of the Arena Football League - which is quite fitting as Tampa is the Yanks' home away from home. They are the winningest team in AFL history, having won five of the (as of June 2011) 23 ArenaBowls, after attending nine of them, and missing the playoffs only twice: 2006 and 2008.
Born in Pittsburgh as the Gladiators in 1987, they are one of the four founding members of the AFL, and with the demise of the other three (Chicago Bruisers in 1990, Denver Dynamite in 1992, and Washington Commandos in 1991), the only remaining link to the league's beginnings. Poor attendance, and the fluidity of moves, startups, and foldings in the league that persist to this day, forced the team to move into an untapped market with a brand new, shiny stadium patiently-awaiting a new tenant: St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Florida Suncoast Dome. While originally built for baseball, the city graciously played host to this new team from this very-unique concept of a sport, and due to the team's new name of "Storm" and as a nod to the common summertime meteorological feature, the stadium was renamed the "Thunderdome".
In the meantime, the Tampa Bay Lightning would be awarded to Tampa by the NHL, and would begin playing in 1992. The only space available on the east side of Tampa Bay at the time was the Florida State Fairgrounds' main venue, Expo Hall. Its 10,000-seat capacity in hockey configuration proved to be too small for such a popular sport, and the team was promptly moved to the Thunderdome. At this point, the Storm and Lightning became linked.
After winning four AFL championships while playing in the Thunderdome (with their third, ArenaBowl IX in 1995, being played at home in the Thunderdome against their "War on I-4" rivals, the Orlando Predators), their "big brother" team - the Lightning - successfully brokered a deal to have their new home, the Tampa Bay Times Forum, built and opened, thus freeing up the newly-christened Tropicana Field to its original purpose: baseball.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
This is by far the most disappointing category of the bunch. I've been to numerous Storm games since moving to St. Pete in 2003, and I've always eaten well for a reasonably-cheap (for a stadium) price. The same variety, with about 80% of the concessions of a Lightning game opened (ranging in choice from Cuban to cheesesteaks, burgers to BBQ, and everything in-between), and that was definitely a positive, as the food was just as good as the bigger tenant's layout.
The biggest issue that ruffled my feathers was the drinks. Not only do they not have unlimited drink cups seen at a variety of venues, but you're hard-pressed to find a fountain soda machine in the building. Almost all concessions served bottles; this may cut down on overhead, but some people really just prefer fresh-mixed soda.
When I did find a place that served them - which happened to be only at the full-service bars, not surprisingly - things got dicey. A normal 20-ounce bottle was $4.50, which is a little high, but not terrible for an arena. The one-size only generic 12-ounce cup was $4, which is kind of a rip-off, but here's the kicker: if you want the 16-ounce collectible cup, you can only buy them for $9, the price of beer - even if it's just soda. When asked, the server, who was very nice and looked as though she was embarrassed even uttering these words, told us this is because "they inventory based on the cups, so I have it counted at the end of the night as a beer sold, no matter even if it was just ice." My out-of-town friend collects those cups, so she reluctantly paid the price, but the ownership (who also owns the Lightning) should be ashamed that they're penny-pinching that much.
"Sodagate" aside, it really is a pleasant experience. The stadium is far from showing its age; the scoreboard is excellent, the sound quality is impeccable - even showcased by actual fireworks (more noise than show, however) after each touchdown, and even though it really isn't in-need of it, a facelift is being performed to keep up with the newest venues.
During this 2011 season, the upper deck is being reconfigured from sections 306 to 311 to house a party area on-par with the Amway Center's OZONE, as well as a reconfiguring of sections 220 through 227. Also being added are an outdoor party deck overlooking the grand plaza and better flow through the concourses. All the work is expected to be done by the end of the year.
Everything I've covered before on the Lightning review is still the same, but I'll paraphrase it for you: Tampa Bay as a whole is a car community, and Downtown - unless you walk to the Channelside complex - is pretty dead after work closes for the day. Hop in the car and drive to Ybor City, Westshore, or Downtown St. Pete instead.
The Storm fans have always been the bright spot in the otherwise obscure history of the AFL. Leading in attendance since almost the beginning of their tenure in the Thunderdome, even when the team is under .500 (as they are this year, for only the 3rd time in history) they come out in droves. Most places would see a crowd of about 12,000 as fantastic, but with a history of 17,000+ games the Storm expect more.
Not only do they show up, but they also know the intricate rules and live and die with every pass and kick. God help the kicker if he misses three or more extra points in a game, as he's reminded of it by a chorus of "BOOOO!!!" from that point forward until he makes them again.
If you've read my Lightning review, you're probably wondering why this number, one seemingly indiscriminate of the team on the surface, is higher. The transit situation hasn't changed (still all-but-nonexistent), nor has the one escalator on each side of the venue, so what's different?
Nothing; it actually IS team-related.
The good news about arena football versus hockey is, like the traditional outdoor football leagues, AFL games generally only happen once a week on the weekends, so the horrible rush-hour traffic you encounter more than 75% of the time with the Lightning is missing 85% of the time for the Storm.
The bathrooms are still green, the concourses are being worked on, but still pretty spacious, and parking is still plentiful, though a little cheaper than in December.
The Storm had some offseason turmoil this year, with the controversial resignation of longtime head coach Tim Marcum, and the departure of star QB Brett Dietz. The team had a hard time adjusting to its new circumstances, but still have a chance at the playoffs once again. Since they are the legendary Storm, you would expect that they will be able to turn it around. With tickets costing only $12.75 and up, a good time is definitely had in all but the most-extreme circumstances.
Again, a carbon copy of the Lightning review suffices here, but I'll paraphrase, just in case: the grand plaza has pregame concerts and games and a large view of the game on the parking garage wall, and the giveaways - while not as many as during the Lightning season - are plenty.
Another nice thing about arena football is balls routinely end up in the stands and they're yours to keep. So, if you want a free souvenir, sit as close to the action as possible; just be careful of the tackles into your beer.
The Storm are - by and large - the franchise by which the rest of the AFL teams seem to have modeled themselves. They are the elder statesmen in a sport that using the term "elder" is almost a joke, but they fulfill their role well.
There are things out of the team's control affecting their score this year, and things they can easily fix for my next visit, but there will be a next visit. No matter how much they may not be the Storm team I remember even from last year, they are still the force to be reckoned with in the Arena Football League, and they require other teams to get better time and time again.
Get down to Tampa and see a piece of sports history; it's not often I can utter that sentence and mean it, but it's well-deserved here. Hopefully, the dearth of soda machines is part of the renovations and will be fixed by then.
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