How Tampa Bay became Champa Bay - the go-to place for glory in US sport

The Tampa Bay Lightning achieved a feat not many North American sports franchises ever do. They retained a major trophy.

The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate their series win over the Montreal Canadiens to retain the Stanley Cup in the NHL ice hockey finals. Picture: Gerry Broome/AP
The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate their series win over the Montreal Canadiens to retain the Stanley Cup in the NHL ice hockey finals. Picture: Gerry Broome/AP

The Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in 10 months with their series win over the Montreal Canadiens last week, becoming only the third team to retain the trophy since 1990, following in the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Penguins (twice) and Detroit Red Wings.

Not bad for a franchise who in 1998 had a court order to seize their skates, pucks and nets.

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Now many hockey fans, not from the Tampa area anyway, will point to the flagrant sidestep around the salary cap rule that the Lightning used to bring back star Nikita Kucherov, who had spent the season on the disabled list after surgery.

Quarterback Tom Brady with the Vince Lombardi trophy following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Picture: Ben Liebenberg/AP

Kucherov's season out injured meant his $10 million salary didn't count towards the Tampa salary cap, a salary cap that doesn't apply in the playoffs.

So as the playoffs began, Kucherov returned and led the league with 32 points, eight goals and 24 assists by the end of the Finals.

Still, for a coastal city with a metropolitan area of four million people, back-to-back Stanley Cups is a massive achievement.

Of course, it doesn't stop there.

Last summer’s arrival of star quarterback Tom Brady was headline news around the world, but come February, that was topped as Brady led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title.

The Buccaneers were a good team before Brady arrived and after some early teething problems, the team managed to put it all together and collect the franchise’s second Super Bowl trophy.

The NFL were the first major sport to take a seat in the Tampa area back in 1974, but it didn't come easy as the Buccaneers struggled with only three playoff appearances in their first 20 seasons.

What's even more miraculous is that the coaching staff and front office have all but managed to retain the entire starting offense and defence from the Super Bowl, meaning the Buccaneers will start the upcoming season in a scarce place.

It's not often a winning team has the salary cap space to retain its weapons, building a cohesive second season for a championship team. Added to that, many of their main rivals in the NFC are starting with new quarterbacks; it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Buccaneers back in the big game.

And we are still not done.

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The youngest of the city’s major sports franchises, Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays, are fighting for the top spot in the American League East and pushing for another extended playoff run.

The Rays didn't manage the feat of winning the World Series last year after running into the red hot LA Dodgers, but can still claim the title of American League champions.

With all that winning, it's little surprise to see both the NBA and MLS looking at the region for possible expansions.

That's a big turnaround for a region that struggled to fill the Tropicana Field stadium just a few years ago and was threatened with local TV blackouts because fans weren't attending the Bucs’ NFL games.

The Rays, much like the Buccaneers and Lightning, managed to retain a lot of their talent.

So what is it about this former military centre that it is able to hang on to its professional sports stars?

Maybe it's the fact that the temperature drops to a balmy 22 degrees in the deepest darkest winter, or that the bay opens out into the Gulf of Mexico, making it a nice spot to escape the city.

Of course, the cynic in me says it's the fact that Florida offers players a chance to see all their money.

Florida is one of only seven states that charges no income tax, meaning that players can increase their salary by staying there rather than heading for the big cities like LA or New York, where taxes are considerably higher.

Whatever the reason, Tampa has become a place of champions, and whether that's because of the tax breaks, or maybe there really is something magical in the water. Either way, the city of Tampa and the broader region of Tampa Bay does deserve its moniker of ‘Champa Bay’.

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