A near-Tampa trifecta: The underdog city of champions

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Sebastian Brinkenfeldt/Creative Commons

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By most metrics, a town such as Tampa, Florida, isn’t meant to host any major league sports teams — or, at least, not any successful ones. Tampa, as neither Florida’s capital nor its most populous city, has never been more than a tourist destination, namely because of its frequent beachgoers and theme park junkies.

But in September of 2020, the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted its second Stanley Cup and now sits atop its division as the team to beat for the 2020-21 NHL season. One month later, the Rays battled valiantly against a team with a payroll nearly four times as large as theirs — namely, the L.A. Dodgers — and finished just two games shy of winning the World Series. To end the 2020-21 NFL season, the Buccaneers crushed the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in the Super Bowl, a victory that gifted the city its second Vince Lombardi Trophy.

In under a year, Tampa caught the attention of fans and the media alike, perhaps making a compelling case to be called by a new name : the world’s sports capital. Surprisingly enough, the city’s only three major league teams are now the cream of the crop. This raises the question: How exactly did the “Big Guava” become such a great sports town?

To answer this question, one must look back in time to see how Tampa got its talented athletes in the first place. For the Lightning and the Rays, draft picks and underappreciated talent were key. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, made big-name signings during the offseason.

For example, in 2018, the Bucs landed linebacker and three-time Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul and, in 2019, signed two more defensive studs: Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh. By 2020, they were only missing one last piece: an elite quarterback.

Enter Tom Brady — a veteran first-ballot Hall of Famer looking for a new home at the ripe old age of 43. After his legendary run with the New England Patriots, in which he led them to six total Super Bowl victories, Brady was the kind of godsend that the Buccaneers needed. And so, they coughed up a whole lot to get him — a $50 million, two-year contract, to be exact.

Shortly after his signing, the “Brady effect” ensued. Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to reunite with his long-time quarterback, Antonio Brown agreed to a one-year contract and Leonard Fournette joined for a fresh start. Though many thought Brady’s career was destined to peter out in Tampa, his signing with the team was just the beginning for lots of Bucs fans. The result? A Super Bowl title and counting.

For the Lightning and the Rays, success came about a little differently. They were not headlined by a single star but rather assembled squads of equally valuable players.

In the case of the Lightning, drafting solid players was their secret weapon for nearly a decade. Some of their best, including Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos have been with the team for the entirety of their careers. Vasilevskiy, for example, was picked 19 overall back in 2012 and is now considered to be one of the top goalies in the NHL with a save percentage of 94 so far this season.

Undervalued players with chips on their shoulders were also mixed into the team. Signing undrafted free agents such as Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson played a critical role in rounding out a Stanley Cup-winning Lightning roster.

Similarly, the Rays’ recruitment focused on acquiring depth instead of making a handful of rare, blockbuster deals. By trusting in the players who they had acquired in years past — through shrewd draft picks, trades and signings — the team quietly became a force to be reckoned with. Players who worked their way up from minor leagues, including Randy Arozarena and Blake Snell, stepped up to the plate for the Rays, helping to secure the team’s first American League pennant since 2008.

While the recent surge of sports success from Tampa’s three teams each tell a different story, two common themes bind them all together: financial sacrifices and top-tier managerial decision-making. In comparison to big-market cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston, Tampa is relatively under-resourced. And yet, in spite of being a small-market city, its teams continue to make great strides.

What we’re seeing right now from the city of Tampa is history in the making. Whether or not it will ever be the consensus sports capital of the world is still up for debate. But, at the very least, one fact remains clear: The “Big Guava” is finally earning its long-awaited respect.

Ryan Chien covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].