It was a fine afternoon for football Sunday in Jacksonville and 46,520 fans (actually, probably less) showed up to rattle around the city’s Municipal Stadium for the Jaguars' home opener. The stadium, which hasn’t had a name-rights deal in two years, can seat over 76,000. The Jags long ago gave up on that number, and in an effort to avoid television blackouts they covered up sections to cut capacity to 66,066.
They still didn’t come close to selling out.
They’ve publicly stated there is no hope for filling the joint for a single game the entire season. They aren’t even blaming the fact they’re coming off a 5-11 campaign.
“Even if we made the playoffs last year, we’d still be in this situation,” Bill Prescott, the team’s CFO, told the Florida Times-Union. He went on to claim that based on playoff appearances in two of the last four years, the postseason is worth only a 5 percent bump in sales.
This is all the economy’s fault, Prescott maintained.
If that’s true, then the NFL’s grand small-market experiment hatched in 1995 is all but over. Jacksonville as a viable professional sports market isn’t going to end well. Eventually everyone will have to admit it.
No one is blaming fans for staying home. Even with discounted tickets and generous package rates, attending a pro sports event is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. You can be the most loyal fan in the world and never go to a game. Jaguar fans shouldn’t apologize for saving money for something more important than football.
Still, a market that can truly support professional sports has enough people who either can afford it or simply won’t live without it. Every town will support a new team or a big winner. The truth comes not in good times but, like now, bad.
Jacksonville is struggling. The unemployment rate is 10.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and like much of Florida foreclosures are high.
Yet by any known economic metric, what Jacksonville calls a disaster would be considered a renaissance in Detroit. The City of Detroit’s unemployment rate is nearly 27 percent; the metro area checks in at 17.7.
While the Jaguars weren’t good last year and dropped to 0-2 with a listless 31-17 loss to Arizona, the Lions are in the middle of a 19-game losing streak and have won just a single playoff game in 51 seasons.
And still Detroit sold out its opener at Ford Field, capacity 65,000.
It’s a numbers game. Metro Detroit has a population of nearly five million; Jacksonville just 1.3 million. Metro Detroit has 17 Fortune 500 companies that can buy luxury suites and bulk tickets. Jacksonville has just two and none in the top 200.
So even though the Jaguars have no other major pro teams to compete against, it struggles. The Lions go against franchises – successful ones – in MLB, the NBA and the NHL, plus, like Jacksonville, two nearby major college programs. Even in a crippling economy, though, there’s enough money to go around.
Jacksonville was a bold gamble that didn’t make sense in the best of times. Green Bay is the only NFL market that’s smaller, but with its history and public ownership, it’s really the team of the entire state of Wisconsin (population 5.3 million).
Florida already had two long-established NFL franchises, though, when the Jaguars were created in 1995. There never seemed to be a big enough base to make this work.
Television blackouts caused by non-capacity stadiums are going to be an issue across the country this year. Only 20 of 32 teams have presently sold out the season. Still, everyone else filled the stands for their home opener.
Jacksonville barely got to 70 percent of its rigged lower “capacity.”
The franchise, the NFL and the city have all poured tremendous resources into making this work. The stadium is fresh, modern and located conveniently downtown. The team has been a success, with six playoff appearances in 14 seasons. In an effort to help boost the league’s appeal in the region, the NFL even staged a Super Bowl there in the face of loud criticism for putting the big game in a small city.
None of it has worked, at least not enough.
The Jaguars have dropped ticket prices, marketed relentlessly and tried to create value at concession stands. The city’s mayor has called on area businesses to help. The players have even made appeals.
And still there were officially 20,000 empty seats, although independent media accounts estimated that number at closer to 30,000.
In a sign of desperation, team owner Wayne Weaver even told the Associated Press that he’d consider drafting University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow next year to help with ticket sales.
“Star power is incredible, and Tebow is an iconic figure,” Weaver said.
That’s a gimmick that’s rarely worked for pro teams and speaks to a backward way of running a franchise. You draft (and play) Tebow if your football people think he can win games, period.
There was a time in the 1980s and '90s when the profession of sports marketing was new and hot. It created a false sense a team could offset basic business realities. Anything was deemed possible, everything saleable.
So the NFL set up shop in a small, sleepy city and let Los Angeles go without a team. In hockey, the NHL pulled teams out of Canada and expanded across the Sun Belt, only to now find at least a half-dozen franchises in serious trouble.
It turns out sometimes you can’t market the impossible. Not enough people in the South want to watch a hockey game. Not enough people live in Jacksonville to support a big NFL franchise through thick and thin.
No one wants to see the franchise fail and no one is publicly saying it has or will. Weaver hasn’t expressed plans to sell.
However, while there’s a loyal fan base of Jaguar fans, what’s the attendance going to be by season’s end, especially if the 0-2 team continues to sink?
And how do you increase interest for next year if half the games aren’t on television?
If the only thing that can fill the seats in Jacksonville is a roaring economy and a Super Bowl-contending team, then how long into the inevitable economic downturns will it take before everyone admits the obvious?