Can London make the Jaguars more relevant in Jacksonville?


LONDON – It's a good time to be Shad Khan. The Jacksonville Jaguars owner sits in the lobby of a posh Park Lane hotel in central London, finishes his poached eggs and toast, leans back and declares, "The auto industry is on fire. If you're not having a good year in the auto industry, it's not the auto industry. It's you."

It is now Year 4 for Khan as owner of the Jaguars, and Year 3 in his London experiment. It's working not only here, as he says international visits to the team website have spiked significantly, but also in Jacksonville, as he says people from London are visiting for football more and corporate sponsors are investing. EverBank Stadium has been refurbished with cabanas and a humongous scoreboard, and the party deck is mobbed even on cool days like last Sunday. A tire fire of a franchise now offers a much improved fan experience, both in Florida and in Europe.

Shad Kahn, left, talks with Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. (AP)
Shad Kahn, left, talks with Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. (AP)

There's just one lingering problem: the product on the field.

"I think it's got a ways to go," Khan told Yahoo Sports Thursday morning. "We've got all the building blocks in place. The offense, Blake [Bortles], the young receivers, they're coming along. We've been competitive in the fourth quarter the last three games but we haven't won. We need to have better results."

As for how he evaluates head coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell, Khan said, "This is the third year. So, you evaluate at the end of the year, how far we've come."

There are two ways to look at how far the Jaguars have come. They are a more competitive team now. But that hasn't meant wins. The team is 1-5 this season and 8-30 overall under Bradley. Most troubling, the Jags have lost to teams in the past two weeks that are arguably further behind them in the rebuild process: Tampa Bay and Houston. And those defeats came after a loss to a struggling Indianapolis Colts team without its franchise quarterback. This week, the Jags face a Buffalo squad without its starting quarterback, its two star wide receivers and its rookie rusher.

"I think we have a franchise quarterback," Khan said. "Offense is, in a way, the hardest thing to get. Our offense really has jelled. We are the second-youngest team in football. On the offensive side, it's the most encouraging since I've been here. But the defensive side, what do we have to do to be able to close out the game? In the last three games, that was our weakness. You led all in the fourth quarter and you lost all three."

(Technically, Tampa Bay took the lead for good with 15 seconds to go in the third quarter two weeks ago, but close enough.)

"The results speak for themselves," Khan continued. "It's obviously on our defensive side, we have to get better."

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Bradley is known for his approach to defense.

It's to Khan's credit that the Jags have arrived at a new plateau of expectations. When he arrived, the franchise was all but irrelevant; there really was no reason to pay attention. People wanted Tim Tebow as the quarterback just to get some buzz going.

"We showed up in Jacksonville three years ago, almost four years ago, and one of the first things was, 'How do you stabilize the franchise?' " he said. "London, we identified, was a critical part of stabilizing the franchise. To get more fans and to get a critical component which was missing in Jacksonville, which was corporate support."

In a way it's worked too well as the Jags' relationship with London has been the main talking point over Khan's tenure. Many have surmised he's planning to move the franchise entirely overseas, as he already has the Fulham soccer club here. And because of the annual visit, the Jags also have a storage facility in London for team equipment and supplies.

Khan doesn't mind the speculation, either about London or a move to Los Angeles. "Actions speak louder than words," he says. "It's not about quashing, it's about doing the right thing. The results follow and the truth emerges. It doesn't bother me. People have to express their opinions. There's a lot more to do in Jacksonville."

He wants to upgrade the stadium clubs, not only for the Jaguars but also for the annual Florida-Georgia game. "We want to take a neutral stadium to a new level of excellence," he said. "To really have their high-end donors and supporters come into an environment where it's catering to them." He also wants to build a "unique, iconic" indoor practice facility for the Jags.

The overhaul of the complex is notable; it's more upscale than the Gator Bowl most locals grew up with. But it's impossible to know how well the London and EverBank experiments have worked until the team is truly competitive. Right now a sizeable chunk of the influx of new money is from elsewhere: a lot of the cabana dwellers are out-of-towners, and Khan has worked to get jobs in Jacksonville from London-based companies. The next step is to find out what kind of ripple effect a winning team could have both in Florida and in the U.K.

Khan says he doesn't want to micromanage the football side. He speaks with Bradley three or four times a week. He seeks out ways to help.

"I think anytime we've had something that's been identified, we've done it," he said. "It's execution."

Execution is Khan's forte. He turned a car parts business into an international conglomerate, and he did it during a time when the automotive sector has declined in its overall contribution to GDP. He also weathered a recession, which he said he could anticipate. He is a rare American story: a Pakistani-born owner in an old-boys network of rich people – both in the NFL and in soccer. When asked about the impediments to being a minority owner in sports and industry, he said, "What holds you back is yourself." Khan has a familiar manner and an easy smile, but it's clear he doesn't idle.

If and when the Jags do get better, Khan could be seen as even more of a visionary. The NFL market has saturated the U.S., and there really isn't a lot of room left to grow. Here, the market is still largely untapped. In soccer, he says, "You eat what you kill," which means each team finds its own revenue streams. It's not that way in the NFL, where revenue sharing ensures the tide lifts all boats. But if there's a tide that can lift one particular franchise, both back home and here, it's winning.

"Fans identify with a team or want to have a home team," he said. "Right now you'll go to the game [Sunday in London] and see 32 jerseys. It's more of an NFL experience than a specific team experience."

It's unknown whether London will embrace the Jaguars as the "home" team. But it does seem fairly reasonable to think that if the Steelers or Patriots or Giants played here annually, the bump in popularity would be tangible. The question is, how much of a difference would a team full of stars make? Khan points out the Jags are one of the two youngest teams in the league, but he also points out the other is Carolina. That team is unbeaten and it has a franchise quarterback. The Jags have their franchise quarterback, at least in Khan's eyes, and still they seem headed to yet another poor season. The business is improving, but the football is not, and the Jags are only a hot ticket here because of the novelty and the experience. It's not for the star power. Not yet, anyway.

Could more games here be the answer? Khan insists it's "way too early" to consider any resident NFL team here. "The whole idea," he said, "is to stabilize the franchise in Jacksonville and leverage it overseas." But when asked about adding a preseason Jags game in London, he said, "We're not looking at that, but that could be a possibility, sure."

Khan comes from a bottom line background and he works in a bottom-line business. The bottom line is this: London is a success, the stadium revamp in Jacksonville is a success, and the team is still not a success. Football isn't like car parts; there's much more of a human element involved in winning. But Kahn's a self-made billionaire and he's going to own this – literally. To paraphrase: The NFL industry is on fire. If you're not having a good year in the NFL industry, it's not the NFL industry. It's you.

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