With the NFL regular season less than two weeks away and anticipation building to fever pitch among fan bases across the country, the national media's spotlight was squarely on the Jacksonville Jaguars' supporters this past weekend.
Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Having endured a sharp drop-off in season ticket sales—from 42,000 in 2008 to around 25,000 this year, according to team senior vice president Tim Connolly—the Jaguars don't anticipate sellout crowds at any of their eight home games in 2009.
The league's blackout policy mandates that all tickets for a game be sold no later than 72 hours before kickoff in order for it to be televised locally. Barring a miraculous uptick in sales, games in Jacksonville this year will likely be off-limits to televisions in the Jaguars' local markets.
Corporate partners aren't coming to the rescue, as Winn-Dixie did in 2002. In the face of sagging ticket sales, the Jacksonville-based supermarket chain guaranteed that no Jaguars home game would be blacked out by agreeing to buy up unsold tickets each week.
But even a program of giving away tickets to grocery shoppers couldn't fill Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (then Alltel Stadium) to capacity for any home game that season.
Owner Wayne Weaver isn't coming to the rescue, as he's done in recent years.
Asking for extensions on the league's 72-hour blackout deadline, covering seats in 2005 to lower the bar for sellouts at the cost of potential revenue, and even buying unsold tickets himself when necessary, Weaver has done his best to keep Jaguars games on local TV.
In the current economic climate, though, he isn't the only owner struggling to sell tickets. Last month, the San Diego Chargers' chief operating officer admitted that the Chargers, who haven't had a game blacked out since the 2006 preseason, might not sell enough tickets to televise some home games in 2009.
Still, with 10 to 12 teams worried about ticket sales according to NFL and team sources, over half of the league continues to enjoy sellout revenues and locally televised home games in a down economy.
That's how NFL football, as a product, is supposed to work. According to Forbes magazine, 24 teams have season ticket waiting lists over 1,000 names long. In those cities, watching the game at home or a bar is a consolation prize—and sellouts aren't an exception, they're the rule.
Despite the recent drought of box-office support, Jacksonville hasn't always been so ho-hum about its Jaguars.
Crowds of more than 70,000 fans—some of whom would be sitting on the upper deck tarps in the stadium's present state—flocked to cheer on the city's new team in 1995, the Jaguars' first season. During the team's improbable playoff run a year later, 45,000 revelers gathered in Jacksonville Municipal after midnight for the Jaguars' triumphant return from their upset win in Denver.
After the charm of a new team and quick success wore off, though, fan enthusiasm began to wither. Two preseason games were blacked out in 1999, when the Jaguars were embarking on a dominant 14-2 campaign powered by a high-flying offense featuring stars like Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith.
The tarps came in 2005, covering almost 10,000 seats that the team no longer expected to fill and reducing the stadium's game-day capacity to just over 67,000. Over the five seasons that followed, the Jaguars were the NFL's third-winningest team, but they struggled to sell out their shrunken stadium.
This year, defensive end Reggie Hayward asserts that the team's lagging ticket sales can be chalked up to fans being hit hard by the economic downturn.
"It's difficult for people to get out and spend that extra money on football and things of leisure," he noted in an interview before Jacksonville's second preseason game.
But Jacksonville's failure to fill its stadium for the Jaguars extends all the way back to the dot-com bubble and through years of better economic times. Though fans may be pinching pennies these days, they aren't pinching them any harder than fans in New Orleans or Nashville.
In fact, the Jaguars represent a great value for NFL-caliber entertainment when compared to the rest of the league. Their ticket prices are among the lowest, and the team is competently retooling with the goal of playing playoff-caliber football.
For too long, the Jaguars have made one-sided sacrifices to provide their community with free broadcasts of home games. While owning the rights to the game and footing the bill for the manifold costs incurred by an NFL franchise—and, just maybe, being affected by the same recession as his team's fans—Wayne Weaver has practically given the Jaguars experience away locally despite having the leverage to demand sellout attendance.
No more. The bread line's cut off, and there's a perfectly good product being offered at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on eight Sundays this fall:
Tens of thousands, decked in teal and united behind the Jaguars. A hard-nosed, back-to-basics team, purged of hard-to-cheer-for characters and steered by football horse sense. The feeling of being a witness in person and outdoors with the players instead of remotely on some screen.
If the Jacksonville locals have any real appetite for their professional football team, let them eat that cake.
"Well, let them eat cake." [Marie Antoinette, allegedly, when told that French peasants were starving for want of bread.]