The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had their toughest season in almost two decades in 2009, when they finished 3-13 and ownership had to give away...

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had their toughest season in almost two decades in 2009, when they finished 3-13 and ownership had to give away thousands of tickets to most home games in order to avoid television blackouts. The Buccaneers were expected to continue struggling on the field and at the gate this year, yet they are the surprise of the NFL thus far thanks to a 3-1 start that features two fourth quarter comebacks.

But the Buccaneers continue to play in front of thousands of empty seats at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers’ two preseason home games and first two regular season games were blacked out on television within a 75-mile radius — the first blackouts since 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998 — and not even an unexpectedly big game this Sunday, October 17 against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints will be enough to draw a sellout crowd.

The Buccaneers announced Monday, October 11 — three days before the NFL deadline to sell out a game and avoid a blackout — that the Saints game would not sell out and that they didn’t expect to sell out any of the subsequent five regular season home games, only one of which is against a team that currently has a winning record (the Atlanta Falcons visit Sunday, December 5).

Such attendance woes were inconceivable during the Buccaneers’ first decade at Raymond James Stadium, when the franchise completed its rise from league laughingstock (the Bucs suffered 14 straight losing seasons from 1983 through 1996) to champion by winning the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. At one point, the waiting list for season tickets neared 100,000.

The Buccaneers’ current youth movement, though, coincided with the economic downturn that has sent unemployment in the Tampa area soaring past 12 percent and, according to TheStreet.com, lowered the median house price by more than $12,000.

The season ticket base for the Buccaneers is down to 40,000, and the team hoped to generate some interest by cutting the average ticket price by almost three percent this season and offering seats for as little as $35. But even the lower prices coupled with continued success the rest of the year won’t be enough to fill Raymond James.

“There’s just so much ground to make up,” Buccaneers director of communications Jonathan Grella told The Tampa Tribune this week.

Nor can ownership continue putting a band-aid on the problem by buying unsold tickets or giving them away. “That’s not a sustainable practice, here or anywhere else,” Grella told the Tribune.

Buccaneers fans who can’t afford to attend a game have been forced to get creative in order to watch their favorite team. For the Buccaneers’ season opener against the Cleveland Browns, the fan site JoeBucsFan.com sold out a 29-seat bus that, for $24.95, took fans to a restaurant in Fort Myers owned by Buccaneers legend and Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon.

The Buccaneers’ game is the lone blackout this week and will be , putting the league on pace to exceed last year’s total of 22.