There is one iconic piece to Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium known to just about every football fan who has tuned in to watch past Super Bowls or Bucs games, or bowl games for that matter.
Now it’s time for fans attending Tampa, Florida’s first college football national championship game to get acquainted with that pirate life.
Err, pirate ship.
Though the 103-foot, 43-ton ship is off-limits to the general public and will not fire off any cannons when No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson play Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by ATT (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), its presence alone has spurred some creativity from the host city and playoff organizers.
That in itself is a major victory because nearly two decades ago, the ship itself came close to walking the plank. First, a little history. Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998 with the $3 million pirate ship lording over the north end zone as its centerpiece in Buccaneer Cove — a symbol not only for the Tampa Bay NFL team but also for the legacies of pirates both real and fictional throughout Tampa Bay’s history.
When it came time for the stadium to host its first Super Bowl in 2001, the NFL looked at the real estate the pirate ship took up and created a plan to generate more money in ticket sales. It wanted the ship to be temporarily removed to make way for up to 1,300 more seats.
The Bucs organization refused, and the NFL relented. So they reached a compromise. The pirate deck that goes around the ship would be temporarily removed to make room for extra seats. It would be a less painstaking process while also preserving the ship that makes Raymond James Stadium so distinct.
This model worked so well that it was used again when the stadium hosted the Super Bowl in 2009 and is being used now for the national championship game. An extra 6,000 seats were brought in and added to both end zones. In the north end zone, they are configured around the pirate ship, exactly the same way as 2001.
There is one key difference, though. The sails on the pirate ship will be replaced with new sails that have the College Football Playoff logo on them. ESPN will also use the pirate ship as part of its set during live coverage.
But wait, there’s more. The Tampa Bay Sports Commission and College Football Playoff organizers decided they wanted one more element to tie everything together. On Wednesday, the Jose Gaspar II sailed into town along the Tampa Riverwalk and docked in the middle of the harbor for the duration of championship weekend.
The pirate ship inside the stadium was modeled after this particular ship, which usually leads a flotilla simulating a pirate invasion during Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Festival, celebrating the area’s history and the legend of pirate Jose Gaspar.
“We were looking at a way to play to the strengths of this market, to take advantage of the water and with the history and tradition of the Gasparilla ship here in Tampa, we’re glad to bring that together,” said Michael Kelly, chief operating officer for the College Football Playoff. “Seeing the Gasparilla ship in the middle of the basin and the stadium pirate ship that’s there, it’s a unique feature of the stadium. It does differentiate that building from pretty much any other. You know it’s a Tampa game when you see it there.”
It’s believed to be the first time the Gasparilla ship has been used in conjunction with a sporting event in town. But it’s not the first time another group using the stadium has celebrated the city’s pirate history.
In 2014, the stadium hosted the International Indian Film Academy Awards, or the Bollywood Oscars as they are more commonly known. For their show-stopping opening number, the show’s producers decided they wanted their stars to perform on a float of a Gasparilla ship (normally used during the Gasparilla parade).
Stadium officials realized the height and width of the float would be a problem for entry onto the field, so they had to make adjustments to the awning cover over one tunnel to make room. They practiced getting the float onto the field in the days leading up to the show. The performance itself was seamless.
That’s exactly what CFP organizers are hoping for, too. Hundreds of people are working around the clock at the stadium to ensure everything will be perfect for Monday. An entirely new field was laid down immediately after the Outback Bowl ended Monday; CFP and 2017 banners were placed on the exterior of the stadium and behind the brand-new scoreboards; all the Tampa Bay Bucs signage inside the stadium has been wrapped in CFP graphics and logos.
Plenty more work was done to transform Tampa Bay into college football central. About the only thing that remains the same is the pirate ship.
Aye, aye, as it should.