Normally, you can watch a Super Bowl and plausibly not know which team’s stadium is hosting it. The Vikings’ stadium has a huge Gjallarhorn that is blown before every game, but I didn’t even notice it when I went to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. Next year’s Super Bowl will be held in the newly constructed SoFi Stadium, which is already mostly neutral-looking because it’s home to two teams, the Rams and Chargers. (Most Chargers home games since the franchise moved to Los Angeles look like neutral-site games anyway.) Some NFL stadiums almost seem built to host events like the Super Bowl. There might be some minor signage that reveals which team typically plays in a venue—a logo somewhere, seats in that team’s colorway—but I think you could host the Super Bowl in 29 of the NFL’s 30 stadiums and make it reasonably look like a neutral site.
But Super Bowl LV is being played in Raymond James Stadium, home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By beating the Packers in the NFC title game, they became the first team to qualify for a Super Bowl played in their home stadium. And Raymond James Stadium has a 100-foot-long Buccaneers ship behind one of the end zones.
There’s no comparable feature in any other NFL stadium. The Patriots’ stadium has a lighthouse and a bridge, which has always confused me, because (a) the stadium is not near a large body of water and (b) Patriots are not, by their nature, aquatic. (Working theory: Maybe Tom Brady went to Tampa Bay during the offseason because the Bucs are the only other NFL team with an in-stadium nautical attraction.) The Raiders’ stadium has a big torch, but there’s no indication that it is a Raiders torch. The Jaguars’ stadium has a pool; while real jaguars do enjoy a nice swim, this pool is not by any means Jaguars-themed.
And then there’s the Buccaneers’ big-ass pirate ship. It’s not a real ship, for the record—it’s made of concrete, and would instantly sink to the bottom of Tampa Bay if it tried to set sail. The cannons on board are, thankfully, not real. The ship has six of them that shoot smoke, four that fire confetti, and two machines that make cannon noises after the Bucs score. These “concussion cannons” are loud enough to scare Cam Newton.
On game days, the boat is manned by 30 people in pirate gear, some of whom run the ship (making the cannons go off, etc.) and some of whom act as cheerleaders. The ship has a massive sculptural rendition of the Bucs logo, complete with a skull, on the bow. (Judging from the exaggerated brow and wide-set cheeks, it appears the skull is from an australopithecus, or some sort of early-stage human ancestor.) At one point, the boat had an animatronic talking parrot on board, but the parrot has since been removed.
Tampa’s history with pirates is somewhat murky. The city hosts the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a parade that pays tribute to the legendary José Gaspar, who built a pirate kingdom on the Gulf coast of Florida in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Unfortunately, Gaspar probably never existed. He was likely made up in the early 1900s to justify the party. Most pirate stuff in the 1700s happened in the Caribbean—several movies were made about this, although they weren’t completely historically accurate. Pirate stuff probably did not happen around Tampa, which wasn’t settled by white people until the 1800s and thus wasn’t buzzing with ships to plunder. But the Gaspar story has stuck, and when Tampa got a professional football team in 1976, it was named after the city’s pirate legend.
According to Greg Auman of The Athletic, a Buccaneers marketing executive named Rick McNerney came up with the idea to add the pirate ship to Raymond James Stadium—with the thought to put corporate sponsorship on the boat’s sails. But he had the idea in December 1997—about 16 months after construction on the stadium had already begun. Luckily, the venue was designed with big open concourses, leaving it with enough room and structural support to fit a 100-foot concrete boat. (For big games, like the Super Bowl, the concourses are filled with temporary seating—except, of course, for the boat, costing the stadium a few thousand seats for the biggest sporting events in the world.) About five months before their season opener in 1998, the Buccaneers approached Companies of Nassal, an Orlando business that builds attractions for Disney and Universal Studios. Nassal built the ship in 71 days, working around the clock. It cost $3 million.
In Auman’s article, Buccaneers executives sound as if they felt that they were ushering in a new wave of stadium philosophy, where football and fun would be blended into one all-encompassing entertainment experience. “It feels great to know that the pirate ship has played a part in influencing the next wave of stadium construction,” Buccaneers COO Brian Ford said. But most new NFL stadiums are billion-dollar state-of-the-art wonderdomes. Their general aesthetic is What if the iPhone app for your bank grew 200 feet tall and hosted football games? You’re not supposed to be entertained by these buildings; you’re supposed to be impressed by how expensive they look.
Which is why I enjoy that Tampa’s stadium is included in the rotation for big games like the Super Bowl. It’s not a sparkling vision of the future. Despite being built just 23 years ago, it is the NFL’s 11th-oldest stadium. And yet it still hosts the sport’s premier games every once in a while. This is the third Super Bowl that will be played at Raymond James—the most recent came in 2009, with Santonio Holmes making his title-winning catch opposite the pirate ship. The boat was also in the background when Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow reeled in his game-winning catch to win the 2017 College Football Playoff national championship game—you can see it right here in the opening shot of the broadcast.
The ship just looks funny at non-Buccaneers games. For special games like the Super Bowl or the college football national championship, the stadium will get special “sails” for the ship. But for not-that-important games—like when the stadium hosted the Tampa Bay Vipers of the XFL—the Buccaneers sails are just furled. I’ve been to one game at Raymond James Stadium, an Outback Bowl between Northwestern and Auburn in 2010, and the boat was just … there. It wasn’t for Auburn fans, it wasn’t for Northwestern fans, it wasn’t even decked out in Bloomin’ Onions to support Outback Steakhouse. When the USF Bulls play home games in the stadium, the ship sits dormant. The U.S. men’s national soccer team has hosted international opponents in the stadium, introducing America to other nations via a $3 million fake pirate ship.
But the ship will be stranger than ever for this Super Bowl. Because the Super Bowl is officially a neutral-site game, the NFL has decided to make it appear as if this is not a Buccaneers-specific pirate ship, but just a generic pirate ship that happens to be inside of the football stadium where the Bucs will play the Chiefs. The massive Buccaneer-logo sails have been replaced with Super Bowl LV sails, as happened at previous Tampa Super Bowls. And the cannons, which normally fire every time that the Buccaneers score, will not be allowed to fire during the game. The NFL released a statement confirming that the cannons will go off in the team’s pregame introductions and in the case of a Buccaneers win, but not after Buccaneers’ scores. (Like with other Super Bowls, the neutral-site stadium will attempt to replicate aspects of each team’s usual home introduction.)
It makes sense that the NFL wants to provide a neutral site for its Super Bowl—but home-field advantage was more or less eliminated this year, with home teams winning only 49.8 percent of the time as fan attendance was limited during the coronavirus pandemic. And historically, the pirate ship hasn’t helped Tampa Bay establish a meaningful home-field edge: The Bucs are dead last all time in home winning percentage, having won just 46.5 percent of their games in Tampa. So the NFL doesn’t really need to neutralize the boat. Do we really think that Patrick Mahomes will be thrown off because of occasional loud noises after opposing scores?
The in-stadium pirate ship is a time capsule to an era that never existed. The Buccaneers thought they were ushering in an era of gaudy in-venue attractions; instead, other teams built cookie-cutter palaces and the Bucs were left with a deleted scene from an amusement park. They were one of the last teams that actually tried to build their own unique stadium, while everybody else tried to build the most expensive version of the same thing. Every time I see the Bucs’ big tacky boat sitting there Sunday, I’ll be glad that Tampa Bay became the first team to have a home Super Bowl. Let the damn cannons fire.