Traci Johnson remembers the rumor swirling around Tampa Bay. Tom Brady, the golden boy of the New England Patriots for 20 years, was possibly headed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Now a 20-year veteran of the Tampa Bay Times, Johnson arrived in the Bay area a year before the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002. The deputy editor for sports described the years since then as a wasteland for fans.
“You’re used to, ‘We don’t get good things here,’” she said. “So even when we initially were like ‘Yeah, they’re thinking about Brady,’ it was like, it will never happen. There’s no way Tom Brady will come and be the quarterback of the Bucs.”
Of course, it did happen. Just before Brady signed with the Bucs, the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay newspaper had gone remote as the coronavirus pandemic began upending all aspects of life. The sports department was slammed with reporting on all the sport shutdowns.
Then came the Brady news.
“I think generally it was a big pick-me-up for the newsroom, just because in all honesty it was incredibly exciting,” said Carolyn Fox, the newspaper’s senior deputy editor, engagement, sports & culture. “It meant the Bucs were more relevant than they had been in a long time, and I think for everyone in the sports team, it was just a moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, this will grow our audience. There’s going to be more interest in our coverage.’”
The Tampa Bay Times has experienced a huge jump in readership from other states, most notably from Massachusetts. Figures that Fox shared with Poynter showed 910,248 Massachusetts visitors to tampabay.com from March 1, 2019, to March 1, 2020. From March 1, 2020, to now, there have been 2,502,087 visitors from Massachusetts, making the Bay State the fifth-highest state with visitors to the website, after Florida, California, New York and Texas. A lot of the traffic comes from Boston and Lowell.
“I think the clear reason we are getting more traffic from Massachusetts is Tom Brady,” Fox said. “There’s differing opinions on whether or not that’s people that are hate-following or just love him and feel like he gave his time in New England and they still want to see him succeed. I don’t know which is which.”
Johnson said her team realized “how big this was going to be” when the Times reported that Brady was moving into Derek Jeter’s 30,000-square-foot waterfront mansion on Davis Islands. “Traffic immediately for that story just blew up. It was insane,” she said. “It ended up being our most-viewed story for the entire year of 2020.”
Johnson pointed out that there’s also a big reader interest in Brady’s wife, Brazilian supermodel and activist Gisele Bündchen.
The Times’ sports team has been on the grind in the weeks — and now days — leading up to Super Bowl LV. Johnson said the greatest challenge has been adjusting to this new normal, where access to players went from in-person one-on-ones to Zoom calls. She’s gone back and forth on the need for a designated “Brady reporter.”
“It’s been absolutely insane,” she said. “Honestly I hope we get back to a little bit more in-person access when the pandemic dies down and the coronavirus gets, hopefully, kind of corralled.”