Remember when Tampa Bay professional sports were a laughingstock? When Tampa was the butt of sports city jokes?
Tampa’s teams stunk and its stadiums were mocked — the football stadium known for that cheesy pirate ship in the end zone and the baseball stadium, way out in St. Petersburg, known for having more empty space than the Javits Center during the pandemic.
Well, look who’s laughing now.
As we in New York wallow in what arguably is a collective nadir in professional sports in our lifetimes, not having a sniff at a championship in nearly a decade, Tampa has turned into Titletown.
That madness will be on display for the world to see on Sunday with the Buccaneers playing the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
While New York hasn’t celebrated a professional sports champion since the Giants won their last Super Bowl in the 2011 season, Tampa’s three professional teams have all made their respective league’s championships in this past year.
The Jets’ last championship was in 1969, the Knicks in 1973, the Mets in 1986, the Rangers in 1994, the Nets in 1974 when they were still in the ABA, the Islanders in 1983. Even the Yankees, who have been the closest thing to consistent excellence that we have in New York, haven’t won a World Series since 2009.
The Lightning are the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
The Rays took the Dodgers to six games before losing the World Series in the fall.
And now they have the Bucs, the very franchise that once was the poster child for NFL futility, having lost its first 26 games when the franchise began in 1976, going 0-14 in its first season and 0-12 in its second before winning its final two games in 1977.
Who would have thought that the Buccaneers, a franchise with an all-time record of 271-426-1 and one title (2003), would have been Tom Brady’s first choice in free agency and that he’d be wearing their uniform while playing in his 10th career Super Bowl?
Who would have thought the Buccaneers would be the first-ever NFL team playing a Super Bowl in its home stadium in the game’s 55th year?
“It’s incredible, baby!’’ Dick Vitale, a resident of nearby Sarasota, Fla., for more 25 years and a Tampa superfan of sorts, told The Post. “The feeling down here is unreal right now.’’
Vitale, who remains a national treasure as one of the most entertaining and recognizable college basketball voices of our time with ESPN, is 81 years old. Yet he still has season tickets to the Buccaneers, Rays (since the franchise’s inception in 1998) and Lightning (with whom he’s become close friends with coach Jon Cooper).
“People look at me and think, ‘basketball, basketball,’ but I’ve been a sports fanatic all my life,’’ Vitale said. “As a kid, I used to cut class in East Rutherford, N.J., with a couple of my buddies and we’d head to Yankee Stadium to hang outside at 9:30 in the morning to watch Casey Stengel and the players come into the Stadium.
“I’m a sports junkie. When I moved down here, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be loyal to my local area.’ Now I root against the Yankees and root for the Rays.’’
Vitale and his wife, Lorraine, recently were invited by the Bucs to be their guests in a suite to watch the Super Bowl, which has him jumping out of his skin.
“This team is playing at another level right now,’’ Vitale said. “I’m telling you: I feel it in my heart they’re going to win the Super Bowl.’’
What gives? Is there something in the Tampa Bay water?
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht called this run “unbelievable for the city of Tampa — something 100 years from now they’ll still talk about.’’
Vitale lamented what COVID-19 has taken away from the Tampa area as its teams have thrived.
“It’s been a tremendous season for our fans, but it’s been a negative for the fans because we can’t be there at the games to enjoy it,’’ he said. “Following it on TV has been a great thrill. We’ve had the Rays in the World Series, the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup and now the Bucs in the Super Bowl.
“Just think about the dollars the area has lost that economically would have been there. But it’s still a thrill. It’s still exciting.’’
For Tampa, it’s awesome, baby.