Jacksonville Jaguars in Fight for Survival
The online letter to the Jacksonville Jaguars team website seemed innocent enough.
A reader who called himself "Joey from Jacksonville" was complaining about a recent announcement that the club's annual inter-squad training camp scrimmage for the first time would not be open to the public in August, but rather to season-ticket holders only.
Vic Ketchman, editor of Jaguars.com, answered the email with an impassioned post asking -- if not begging -- the community to rally behind a team that last season averaged just 49,652 fans per game and had all but one of its home dates blacked out on local television.
"I would like to speak to everyone from my heart. I ask that you, please, read my words carefully and embrace them. Here goes: Folks, this is it," Ketchman wrote in his 266-word response. "This is save the whale and, from my perch, the whale is struggling to live. I think everyone would do well to understand that the radical nature of this decision underscores the team's desperation to sell tickets. The team knew this decision would be harshly criticized, yet, it went forward with it. Why do you think it did? If your answer is that we have reached the tipping point, then you are a logical person."
Ketchman gave Jacksonville talk radio hosts something to kick around. He even prompted CBSsportsline writer Mike Freeman, a former columnist at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, to pen a piece published Wednesday that the Jaguars were on life support and as good as gone from North Florida.
"My guess is that in two or three years the Jaguars will be moving to Los Angeles," Freeman wrote.
It's easy to question the viability of Jacksonville, the nation's No. 47 media market, as a long-term home for the NFL, especially in the present economy. The NFL's revenue-sharing model has allowed small-market clubs to thrive, but the current collective bargaining agreement expires next spring and no one can predict what will happen on the labor front other than things are going to volatile.
"Under the current CBA, the economics of operating in Jacksonville are dramatically different in 2010 than in 1995 when the Jaguars first started playing, especially with players' salaries increasing in such dramatic fashion," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp LTD., a Chicago-based sports business consultancy. "Without meaningful modification to either the CBA or significant infusion of the public sector, the Jaguars operating will be an ever-increasingly difficult proposition."
They'll have to wait on the former, but the Jags are doing something about the latter.
Tony Boselli, the retired offensive tackle and five-time Pro Bowler, is the greatest player in Jaguars history. He's now a color analyst for the team's preseason games and active participant in a grassroots effort by local community leaders, called Team Teal, to push the purchase of season tickets. He's also tired of the doomsday scenario being painted of the franchise's future by the St. Johns River.
"I'm a realist, so I understand there's a story there, but I also get very frustrated," Boselli said Thursday after speaking to a sports club in nearby St. Augustine. " You would think by the tone of some of these articles that blackouts were invented in Jacksonville, and that New Orleans or Tampa or Miami or Oakland or Detroit or Houston had never had to deal with them. Ever. Look, I know this is an issue and if it's not dealt than you start down a path that is dangerous, but c'mon."
Therein lies the source of Boselli's frustration. The Jags are not only dealing with the issue, but doing so with remarkable transparency; and better success than perception -- which is often reality -- is giving them credit for.
Ketchman's plea isn't the only reference to the team's ticket push on the club's website. The home page features a fuel gauge that provides viewers a daily readout of progress toward season-ticket sales and the ultimate goal.
Last year, the Jaguars lost 17,000 season ticket orders, but in 2010 have renewed at a 90-percent rate. Of the 36,864 season tickets sold as of Thursday, 12,511 (more than a third) were new season-ticket packages.
They need to hit 50,957, the number of non-premium seats, to avoid blackouts of games at Jacksonville Memorial Stadium.
Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver, who was awarded the expansion franchise in 1994, has been steadfast in his commitment to seeing the team succeed in Jacksonville. Weaver has said he would consider playing some home games in Orlando, two hours away, if the NFL moves to an expanded 18-game schedule to help grow his base.
Uprooting for Los Angeles, which lost both the Rams and Raiders in the '90s, is not on his radar.
"Wayne Weaver is going to determine where he wants his football team," said Carl Cannon, chairman of Touchdown Jacksonville!, the local sports commission that organized the Team Teal initiative. "But [Weaver] has publicly and privately stated that he wants his football team in Jacksonville and the only thing that would prevent that is a lack of team support."
Jags coach Jack Del Rio, as well as high-profile players like running back Maurice Jones-Drew, have participated in the Team Teal blitz that has dispatched reps to a wide scope of corporation, small businesses and clubs in an effort to rally local support. These are tactics more often associated with college booster tours, but the gains in both sales and enthusiasm have been substantial, especially when weighed against last year when the club had very little buzz coming off a 6-10 campaign.
"It was the perfect storm," Boselli (pictured right) said of falloff in tickets following the '08 season. "The team wasn't any good and we went through a couple years of some very poor drafts."
The '09 Jags, buoyed by one of the league's best rookie draft classes, were 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC wild-card chase heading into December, but lost the last four games of the season. It wasn't the ending Jacksonville was looking for. There was, however, encouragement to draw on, unlike the season before.
Some negativity, too.
"A lot of the script has yet to be written," Boselli said. "We need to continue to step up as a community ... and the team needs to be better, that's no secret."
Boselli was quick to offer a reminder that Jacksonville's Sunshine State sister teams to south, Tampa Bay and Miami, had their share of empty seats last year, also. The owners of the Buccaneers, in fact, already have gone public with remarks bracing their fanbase for the first home blackouts in the history of 12-year-old Raymond James Stadium.
"I don't want to pick on any community, but here's a question," Boselli said. "If the Jaguars have more games on TV than Tampa, does that mean the Bucs are moving to L.A.?"
But the Jaguars -- and the "Joeys from Jacksonville"-- would just as soon such speculation be somebody else's problem.