‘Champa Bay’: Exploring the new golden age of Tampa sports
When professional sports first arrived in Tampa in the mid 1970s, the town’s sports teams became less of a point of civic pride and more of a national punchline. The bumbling beginnings of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers became an easy target of mockery, most notably from legendary television host Johnny Carson.
But if Carson were around today, he’d find that the only laughing matter around Tampa sports is just how successful they’ve been in such a short period of time.
On Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row, bringing a third championship to the Tampa area in just under a year. The Lightning’s 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup triumphs bookend the second title in franchise history for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who defeated the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this year in Super Bowl LV.
Compared to larger markets with bigger names and deeper legacies, Tampa has not traditionally been thought of as a town of champions. And yet, the city’s three professional sports teams have all tasted championship glory all at the same time in what has become a new golden age for sports in the Bay.
Tampa’s ascendance to a city of champions begins with the Lightning, who were trending in that direction in the late 2010s. The 2017-18 NHL season would see the Lightning win their first division title since their first Stanley Cup triumph in 2003-04, become the top seed in the Eastern Conference and then fall just short of a chance at the Cup after forcing a seven game Eastern Conference finals series.
After Julien BriseBois took over as general manager in 2018, the Lightning tied the NHL record for most wins in a season (62) and won the Presidents’ Trophy, but were bounced from the playoffs in a first-round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite that setback, the Lightning bounced back with a Stanley Cup victory in the COVID-altered 2019-20 season, and then reprised their victory in 2021 for good measure.
As the Lightning emerged to be among the class of the NHL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went under the radar in building a championship contender. With the arrival of head coach Bruce Arians in 2019, the Bucs began to put the pieces in place for a dominant defense and explosive offense that included:
Not bad, huh?
Tampa began to show signs of major progress under Arians at the end of 2019, going 5-3 over the second half of the season to finish with a 7-9 record. And in free agency, the team made a blockbuster acquisition at quarterback by adding Tom Brady, who had been let go by the New England Patriots after a down year at age 42.
Brady proved to be the rising tide that lifted all ships, as he accelerated Tampa Bay’s growth as a team while also attracting blue chip talent like All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and mercurial All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. After going 11-5, the Buccaneers made a run to Super Bowl LV as a wild-card team and then won it all with a 31-9 thrashing of Kansas City.
While the Buccaneers have reveled in the limelight and the Lightning have set the standard, the Tampa Bay Rays have also teased championship potential. Despite off-the-field issues — namely a stadium dispute that has the team at the subject of relocation rumors — the Rays have enjoyed on-field success that has included a wild-card berth in the 2019 MLB playoffs and an AL East title in 2020.
After winning their division, the Rays made it all the way to last year’s World Series, but eventually lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 4-2 series. In their efforts to make it back, the Rays are currently second in the AL East standings at 51-36, 2.5 games back of the lead.
For most towns, it’s enough for one of their sports teams to be championship caliber at any given time. But with all three of their teams either winning championships or making it to the doorstep of championships, this has quickly become a special time for Tampa sports and their fans — one which may not have even reached its apex yet.