Monday, April 27, 2009

Tampa Joins the NFL, 4/24/74

April 24, 1974, is remembered by some as the day William “Bud” Abbott – he of the Abbott and Costello comedy duo – died at the age of 78. Here in Tampa, however, it is known as one of the red-letter dates in local history. On that date 35 years ago, this officially became a big-time sports market when the National Football League awarded its 27th franchise to the Tampa Bay area.

The Drake Hotel in New York City provided the backdrop for the momentous announcement that would forever change the face of this community. For the then-record expansion fee of $16 million ($66.5 million in today’s dollars), the Tampa Bay area would have its own franchise to begin play just two years later in 1976. By comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers each paid $140 million in expansion fees to join the league in 1995, while the Houston Texans paid $700 million to enter as the league’s 32nd franchise in 2002.

The Tampa Bay area beat out other cities such as Memphis, Phoenix, and Honolulu for the right to join the NFL. Seattle, although not awarded a franchise on that day, was a lock to become the 28th franchise pending the approval of their stadium lease situation. So Tampa’s selection essentially ended the drama of where the NFL would expand to in 1976.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle cited several reasons that set the Tampa Bay area apart from the 25 other cities that originally applied for a franchise. Among those reasons was the region’s population, potential for growth, stable economy, nearby airport, weather, the support for the 12 exhibition games played in Tampa since 1968, and the “strong desire for the community to obtain a franchise.”

Still undecided were two fairly important details: determining who would take ownership of the franchise and what the team would be called. The NFL awarded the franchise to the area, not a person or group, so the application process would again have to run its course. The franchises eventual nickname, the Buccaneers, would not be announced until 1975.

Tampa Stadium would also need to conform to NFL standards. The awarding of the franchise hinged on expanding the stadium’s seating capacity to at least 72,000. To increase capacity in the 46,000-seat stadium, both the north and south ends of Tampa Stadium would need to be enclosed to meet the requirement. Additional upgrades to the press box, locker rooms, and grandstands would be necessary to get the stadium NFL-ready by 1976.

On October 30, 1974, the NFL awarded ownership rights to Tom McCloskey, a contractor from Philadelphia. Due to personal and financial problems, McCloskey later backed out and withdrew his application. Then in December, the NFL awarded the franchise to a tax attorney from Jacksonville named Hugh Culverhouse. The rest, as they say, is history.

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