Commentary

Small crowds, blackouts cloud future

Jacksonville Jaguars fight to 'revive the pride' in face of dwindling support

Originally Published: November 5, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Jacksonville Municipal Stadium AP Photo/Steve CannonThrough three games in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the Jaguars have played to 68.3 percent capacity, the NFL's lowest figure. Jaguars officials project that all eight home games will be blacked out this season.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The RVs -- some of them had been lined up for days -- rolled into Lot E of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium at dawn on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

More than 80 hours later, The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, a teeming melting pot of red and orange and blue, finally kicked off. The University of Georgia sprinted onto the field with black helmets, but the University of Florida ran the Bulldogs out of the building, 41-17.

The uber-intense annual rivalry was witnessed by 84,604 fanatics and a national audience on CBS. Afterward, the temporary bleachers in the south end zone were removed and covers were placed over some sections in the upper deck.

On Sunday, when the Kansas City Chiefs visit the Jacksonville Jaguars, the crowd is likely to be less than half the size of that swirling Florida-Georgia constituency. It will be the league-leading fourth blackout for the Jaguars, who might well complete the season without a home game on local television; the eight blackouts team officials foresee would be one fewer than the entire NFL total in 2008.

[+] EnlargeWayne Weaver
Kirby Lee/Image Sport/US PresswireSays Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver: "Can an NFL team survive playing in a 67,000-seat stadium with 42,000 fans? You can't."

Late last week, when Jaguars owner J. Wayne Weaver openly discussed the team's ticket issues in his exquisitely detailed office, his frustration surfaced only once.

"Sure, it bothers me," Weaver said, frowning and clasping his large, tanned hands. "It bothers me that we've become the poster boy for blackouts. Sitting here as the man in charge of this franchise, yes, it bothers me."

The Jaguars, who didn't have a game blacked out last season, lost 17,000 season-ticket holders this season. When a proposed 75,000-seat stadium in Los Angeles recently cleared the final legislative and environmental hurdles, Jacksonville became, in many minds, the leading candidate for relocation.

Even with the tarps that reduce the official capacity of Municipal Stadium to 67,164, the Jaguars are playing to 68.3 percent capacity, the league's lowest figure, worse than the Detroit Lions (76.5 percent) and Oakland Raiders (77.8), whose on-field product is clearly inferior. Jacksonville's announced attendance for the home opener against Arizona was 46,520, followed by 49,014 versus Tennessee and 42,088 three weeks ago against St. Louis. Media accounts suggest the actual numbers were significantly lower. The average ticket price is $45, third-lowest in the league, but tickets aren't selling like they used to.

There's a lot to like about Jacksonville, an attractive, still-growing city on the bank of the St. Johns River. This past May, Sports Illustrated, citing the city's 1,220 holes of golf, proclaimed it "Golf Town USA." It has Florida's agreeable climate -- without Miami's housing costs.

But is it a sustainable environment for the NFL? Was the franchise, based on the market, dead on arrival when it kicked off in 1995? The Jaguars, instructively, remain the only major league game in town.

Jacksonville is the largest city in terms of square miles (874.3) in the contiguous United States, but the entirety of its metropolitan population is only about 1.3 million, making it one of the league's smaller markets. And although Green Bay, Buffalo and New Orleans technically are less populated cities, they have successfully broadened their fan base to include outlying areas.

The effects of the economic downturn have been harsh in Jacksonville. The housing and construction markets have been hit particularly hard. Unemployment is about 10.5 percent -- still less than half of Detroit's -- but the Lions benefit from a population base of 5 million-plus and from the presence of 17 Fortune 500 companies, which helps ticket sales. As local business leaders point out, Jacksonville has two such companies, both outside the top 200.

For two years now, the stadium itself has gone without a sponsor's name. When the Jaguars acknowledged they might go black for the entire home schedule, the chorus of national criticism began.

[+] EnlargeTony Boselli
US Presswire"It's worked here before -- and it will work again," says Tony Boselli, the Jaguars' first-ever draft choice, in 1995.
Under the headline "NFL has no business in being in Jacksonville," Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wrote, "Jacksonville as a viable professional sports market isn't going to end well. Eventually everyone will have to admit it."

Jacksonville mayor John Peyton, who said he has read the stories, said the Jaguars' plight derives from the combination of a tough economy, a small market and a big stadium.

"[The Jaguars] are a part of the fabric here, an important economic driver," Peyton said last week, sitting in his downtown office. "It's a wonderful distinction to be one of 32 [NFL cities]. It's a pretty exclusive list of cities and brings credibility to the community."

Tony Boselli, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound offensive tackle from USC, was the first draft choice of the fledgling franchise, the second overall pick in 1995. He was voted to the Pro Bowl five times in seven seasons in Jacksonville, but injuries cut short his career. Today, he lives in the area and works as a broadcaster and entrepreneur.

"I have a great love for this franchise," Boselli said, "and it drives me crazy to see it trashed like this. Unfortunately, in this world, perception is reality.

"It's not fair for everyone to jump on the bandwagon and throw Jacksonville under the bus. It's worked here before -- and it will work again. But yeah, we need to sell more tickets."

A monumental upset

At a hotel near Chicago's O'Hare Airport, representatives of five finalists -- the Baltimore Bombers, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Memphis Hound Dogs and St. Louis Stallions -- made their presentations to the NFL expansion and finance committees in the fall of 1993.

The NFL hadn't expanded since 1976, when the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into being, but in 1995, two new teams would open for business. The Panthers were unanimously granted the league's 29th franchise on Nov. 1; five weeks later, Jacksonville scored one of the bigger upsets in NFL history, on or off the field.

By identical committee votes of 10-2 -- the Giants' and Eagles' owners voted for Baltimore -- the Jaguars became the league's 30th franchise. The group that had temporarily dropped out of the process the summer before, the city with the second-smallest television market among the candidates, stunned the major-market favorites in Baltimore and St. Louis.

[+] EnlargeTagliabue
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThen-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was an enthusiastic supporter of Jacksonville when it was awarded a franchise in 1993.

"It became clear to the committees that the Southeast has become a tremendous area for expansion," then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt went as far as to call Jacksonville "the new frontier."

"We made a great case," said Weaver, who had built his fortune with a retail shoe empire in Connecticut. "We probably oversold it."

He was smiling when he said it, but today we know that Jacksonville was, in the best of scenarios, a reach. The Jacksonville decision and the current collective bargaining agreement, seen as too generous in the minds of some Pro Football Hall of Fame voters, might cost Tagliabue a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.

One of those voters, who is familiar with the situation in Jacksonville and requested anonymity, called the move, in retrospect, "sheer lunacy."

Out of the box, however, the Jaguars were an astonishing success. The city spent $121 million to renovate the Gator Bowl, built in 1949. The Jaguars not only made the playoffs in their second season but also, like the Carolina Panthers, reached their conference championship game. The tandem of general manager Michael Huyghue and coach Tom Coughlin guided Jacksonville to the postseason in four of the first five seasons, and the Jags won 49 of 80 games.

"Initially, we were a curiosity -- people pinched themselves. They thought, 'Wow, we're special,'" said Huyghue, now commissioner of the United Football League. "Our messaging was on point, and we started winning quickly."

Jeff Lageman, a terrific pass-rusher, arrived for that inaugural season after six years with the New York Jets. He was the franchise's first captain and today he provides radio and television analysis of the Jaguars. Last week he emerged from a film-study session at the stadium wearing khaki shorts and boat shoes.

"In New York, you were one of many," Lageman said in a soft Southern accent. "Here, you were the only team in town. In 1996, we won our first playoff game in Buffalo, and then our second in Denver. Coming back, we got a hero's welcome. They were lined up on [Interstate] 95 on the way home from the airport.

"The excitement around this town was unbelievable."

In the fifth season of their existence, 1999, the Jaguars fashioned the NFL's best regular-season record, 14-2. But they lost to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC title game and began a slow descent.

"Sometimes," Huyghue noted, "you can be too good too early. There's only one way to go -- down."

A fourth consecutive losing season led to Coughlin's firing, and he was replaced by Jack Del Rio after the 2002 campaign. The Jaguars won their only playoff game since the millennium in 2007 and are a middling 54-52 under Del Rio. The 2008 record was 5-11. This season's 3-4 mark includes Sunday's 30-13 loss to the previously winless Titans.

"Losing hurts the franchise," said 1010 XL radio's Cole Pepper, who has covered the Jaguars for 14 of their 15 seasons. "I think it's lost a little bit of its novelty. With the city's demographics -- this is essentially a blue-collar town -- the margin for error is very, very slim."

Technically, the Jaguars are committed to play in Jacksonville for another 20 years. Weaver signed a lease committing the team to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium through 2029. As of 2008, the Jags had paid rent in excess of $20 million for 14 seasons of play. In the world of sports business, though, deals are not always deals; historically, money -- if there is enough of it -- has been known to override signed contracts.

Although they acknowledge the role of the economy and the NFL's decision to place the franchise in Jacksonville, critics believe the team's management is also open to question. Building a new stadium, they say, should have been a priority. Hiring a more effective general manager and coach after the departure of Huyghue and Coughlin, they add, would have helped.

Jack Del Rio and Maurice Jones-DrewUS PresswireUnder head coach Jack Del Rio since 2003, the Jaguars are 54-52. Jacksonville's lone marketable star is running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

The Jaguars have only one star of marketable consequence, running back Maurice Jones-Drew -- who ran for touchdowns of 80 and 79 yards against the Titans in Week 8. Maybe that's why the owner floated the idea earlier this season of selecting Jacksonville-raised Tim Tebow in next year's draft -- even though the Florida quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner is not considered a top NFL prospect. Weaver referenced Brett Favre and the 7,000 more season tickets sold by the Minnesota Vikings, but he was criticized in online forums and in the media for pandering.

Weaver's stadium office is a showpiece. The sleek wood paneling comes from his old office in Connecticut, where he ran the Nine West and Shoe Carnival store chains. He is surrounded by family photos, and there are civic awards (he and his wife, Delores, reportedly have donated more than $40 million to charity) and about 20 footballs on the shelves.

It has been written that the Jaguars, who already had suffered through three seasons of losing money since 2000, had another negative year in 2008. Now, after the defection of 17,000 ticket holders, what's the situation?

Weaver, wearing gold Jaguars cuff links, fixed his visitor with a steady, blue-eyed gaze.

"I don't discuss financial details," he said firmly. "Look, Delores and I love this city. We live here. I'm committed to find a way to get back to where we're not blacking out games."

Then Weaver paused.

"Can an NFL team survive playing in a 67,000-seat stadium with 42,000 fans?" he asked rhetorically. "You can't."

A new initiative

The late-night valet at the downtown Hyatt Hotel is not a foam-finger-waving zealot who lives and dies with the Jaguars. He has been to some games -- not lately -- but described himself as a fan.

"They need to win some games," he said last week, taking the car keys. "Hey, is it true they're going to go after Tony Dungy next year?"

A professional team's relationship with its city is a delicate ecosystem of supply and demand. An NFL telecast is essentially a three-hour infomercial that powerfully reinforces the brand. The impact of local blackouts can be just as powerful, in a negative way -- out of sight, out of mind. It is just one more hurdle the Jaguars face in trying to overcome the current disconnect. According to Channel 47, the CBS affiliate that has five home games on the schedule, Jaguars games generate nearly double the ratings of other NFL games for the station.

In the minds of the locals, the arrival of the Jaguars created a new identity, forever removing the need to follow Jacksonville with "Fla." Today, the city's leadership is feeling the pressure. As Pepper puts it, "It would be worse for Jacksonville to lose the Jaguars than to never have had them in the first place."

A month ago, the mayor began putting calls out to area business leaders.

"Look," Peyton told them, "this team is important to the city. We've got to do something about this."

The result is a new campaign, introduced Wednesday, called "Revive the Pride." It's a grassroots effort -- the original draft language refers to a "Teal Army" -- to begin to refill the stadium on Sundays.

"This is a private sector deal, supported by the city," Peyton explained last week. "They're going to go peer to peer to sell these tickets. They did it once. I believe we'll do it again."

Peyton was referring to the impressive civic push that probably landed the Jaguars in the first place. Back in 1993, when Weaver was told by the city council that he wasn't to get the improvements he sought in the Gator Bowl, he pulled the plug. Later, when local leaders approached him again, asking what he wanted, he gave them specifics.

"And," Weaver added, "we need to sell all those club tickets."

That's precisely what happened. Five-year commitments were secured for the 10,000 premium club seats -- in a span of 10 days. Of course, matching that in today's economic climate would be next to impossible.

Earlier this season, Weaver, citing a league plan to add two games within the next three years, said he would consider playing some games in Orlando (after Los Angeles, the largest television market -- No. 19 -- without an NFL franchise), a little more than a two-hour drive from No. 47 Jacksonville. Unlike the more popular teams farther north along the East Coast, the Jaguars do not pull many fans from beyond a 25-mile radius.

But what happens if the Jags' local fan base does not blossom soon? The NFL officially has little to say about possible movement for any of its franchises.

"We have not yet arrived at that question [of a team in L.A.]," league spokesman Greg Aiello said when the subject was broached. "As you know, no team has applied to the league for relocation."

Still, there is a growing sense of uneasiness regarding the Jaguars.

"It struck me when Arizona played in the opener with 40,000 in the seats," Lageman said. "I went home and watched the Cowboys-Giants game, and they had 105,000.

"Listen, we don't need to sell 105,000 tickets, but we need to do better. Somehow we need to make the market broader, maybe put training camp in Daytona or [in] Savannah, Ga. A lot of people need to rally here."

Weaver finds himself in an awkward position. He and his partners paid $208 million for the franchise 16 years ago, and today, according to Forbes magazine, it's worth $866 million. That's a nice return on the investment, but it's still the 29th-valued team among 32. At age 74, will the native of nearby Columbus, Ga., take the money and run to, say, Los Angeles?

Most of the people interviewed for this story who have a good understanding of the dynamic say no. Boselli, who will be heavily involved in the Revive the Pride project, thinks the city will deliver.

"I don't see Wayne moving the team," he said. "No, I don't."

But, based on Weaver's insistence that the current situation isn't workable, it certainly seems possible he might sell the team if things don't change.

Says Huyghue, who still lives in the Jacksonville area, "I wouldn't close the book on Jacksonville."

Does he worry about the team's future?

"I do," Huyghue said. "Because numbers, ultimately, don't lie."

Weaver has heard this kind of thing a lot lately. He nodded his head and said he hopes the team soon will benefit from some second-generational loyalty.

He cited a father who brought his 14-year-old son into the office to buy his first season ticket. He talked of the 26-year-old father who recently took his 3-year-old son to his first game, and of his own 6-year-old grandson, who has been going to Jaguars games since he was 2.

"I'm optimistic we're going to solve our ticket problems we're going through," Weaver said. "But it's going to take the support of the community.

"Give us the time and tenure, and we can do it. We'll rival places like Pittsburgh and Green Bay in terms of passion and support."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.