Jacksonville Jaguars Endure Slow Fan Surrender

Tim McClellanCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 04:  Head coach Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars watches the action during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on October 4, 2009 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

The Jacksonville Jaguars were challenged to prove the skeptics wrong when the city was awarded an NFL franchise nearly 16 years ago.

As the smallest media market aside from Green Bay, fans were being asked to overachieve in order to sell tickets and keep the franchise profitable as it navigated the early years. For the most part, the fans delivered on that challenge, and for the first few years everything was fine.

The cracks started to emerge as early as 1999. Coming off a 14 win season that concluded with the Jaguars losing in the AFC Championship game in front of a home crowd, the team was already starting to see a portion of their fan base peeling away. 

It really does not matter what the team has done to stem the tide either. 

When fans grumbled about Tom Coughlin being so much of an authoritarian he was running ticket holders off, the team pressured the head coach to take on a kinder, gentler approach.

Still, when the team struggled during the 2002 season, it was not acceptable to use the legitimate reason that the team was rebuilding after being devastated by salary cap abuse. The same fans who demanded and got Coughlin 2.0 sharpened their attacks on the head coach, and forced Wayne Weaver to make a move to dismiss him and move in a different direction.

The fans got what they wanted.

When Jack Del Rio was hired, most fans embraced the move and were excited about the prospects. He said all the right things, and made it clear there was a new sheriff in town, and things would be different.

In addition to the coaching change, Wayne Weaver went on the offensive, hosting town hall meetings throughout Jacksonville where they solicited feedback from the fans, trying to figure out what the team needed to do in order to reignite the passion within the community for the team they worked so hard to secure.

Fans came out in droves and expressed many reasons for not buying season tickets.

There were certainly legitimate beefs, but there were also many complaints which bordered on the ridiculous.

Fans used the fact that water fountains did not dispense chilled water, or the lack of escalators to the upper decks made them hesitant to buy tickets.

No matter how mundane the complaint might have been, the team listened, and changes were initiated.

It made very little difference to the one thing that really mattered: ticket sales.

The team was still scrambling to sell out the stadium, and was forced to resort to Winn Dixie giving away tickets in 2003.

At the conclusion of the 2004 season, after dealing with sagging ticket sales and 11 blackouts over the previous two years, the Jaguars changed their strategy and decided to "shrink" the stadium.  The plan was intended to bring it more in line with the average size of other stadiums around the league. In tarping nearly 10,000 seats, the team felt they would be able to reduce the inventory and increase the demands.

At the same time, the Jaguars also streamlined the pricing structure for their tickets, eliminating dozens of different price points and making it less confusing for the fans. There was some pricing increase as the team attempted to get more in line with the average ticket price in the league, but the Jaguars still were able to boast the second lowest ticket prices in the National Football League.

The plan worked well in 2005 as the team avoided blackouts. It helped that the Jaguars won 11 games and made their first playoff appearance since the end of the 1999 season. It appeared all things were moving in the right direction.

Then the team stumbled down the stretch in 2006 and missed returning to the playoffs by losing their final three games of the season.

2006 was a great home schedule, including Dallas, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Washington, NY Jets, and New England. No matter what happened, there was little doubt the team would avoid blackouts with a schedule this chalked full of star power.

But, the late season collapse left fans with a new excuse for why they would not buy tickets moving forward: Byron Leftwich.

He was the lightning rod in a quarterback controversy along with David Garrard. Fans fell into one of two camps following the 2006 season, either backing Byron, or supporting David. There was little gray area for many fans. One of these players had to go because the controversy was ripping the base apart.

The team responded to fan criticism by cutting Leftwich prior to the start of the 2007 season, putting their hopes behind David Garrard.

He delivered with an efficient performance and the team managed to get back into the playoff mix, actually winning their first post season game under Jack Del Rio.

Still, things were hardly rosy with ticket sales.

With the prospect of a 2008 home schedule lacking the type of star power of previous seasons, there was a real concern inside the stadium that blackouts would return. The playoff run eased some of the concerns, but did not alleviate them completely. Sales were sluggish as the economy started to take a downward turn. The numbers were close enough for Wayne Weaver to make the decision to buy up the remaining ticket inventory to prevent blackouts.

He was not helped by the fact that the team literally fell apart last season, posting five wins.

Fan apathy grew each week as the team stumbled and bumbled through the season. What made matters worse was only two home wins, and the six losses they posted in the regular season included some real stinkers.

Off the field, players were struggling with all sorts of legal issues, and it appeared the team was in complete disarray. 

Fans jumped off the bandwagon in droves, leaving the team with the prospect of facing blackouts for 2009 despite the reduced stadium size and other efforts.

With the economy in free fall, and the team focused on rebuilding, it became obvious there was going to be trouble with ticket sales in 2009. Wayne Weaver confirmed this when he mentioned during interviews prior to the start of the season that the entire home schedule for the Jaguars was more than likely blacked out.

The team had lost 17,000 season ticket holders following the 2008 debacle, and there was no fresh blood coming in to replenish the losses. 

With the expectation clearly stated by Wayne Weaver, the Jaguars have struggled to crack 40,000 fans for their home games so far this year. The numbers were trending upward until the team went to Seattle and got hammered on the road. Fans expressed their displeasure by making the game against the winless St. Louis Rams the worst game of the year for ticket sales.

It has been a long journey to get to this point, but it appears as if the constant relocation talk and the floundering team have taken a toll on the psyche of the Jaguars fan base. Rather than rise up to quiet the critics as they have done in previous years, they are finally throwing their hands up in surrender.

With the news that Los Angeles has received the blessing from their governor to build a new stadium, the talk of relocation has once again amped up, and as is usually the case, the Jaguars are on the list of possible suitors being targeted.

While it may not be too late to stop the process and turn things around, momentum is a funny thing. Once it starts moving in a certain direction, changing courses can be a monumental task.

City leaders sense this, and have initiated an effort to get local companies to step up and show a little civic pride by supporting the team.

Fans sense this, and they have set into motion initiatives aimed at trying to drum up additional ticket sales.

Even those inside the stadium recognize this.  Vic Ketchman, Senior Editor for Jaguars.com has been speaking repeatedly about the fact that fans need to step up and buy the team.

The sense of urgency with which he reports the situation may fall on deaf ears, but the message being sent is a clear one for anyone paying attention.  Either fans support the team, or they will lose it.

If not Los Angeles, London may be calling soon enough.

How much longer can Wayne support a product in a market that does not recognize the gem they have in their grasp?

He has made it clear he is committed to the city, but at some point that dedication will wane. When the for sale sign goes up for the franchise, no new owner in their right mind will look at Jacksonville as a viable base for a product they just spent nearly $1 billion to purchase.

The lease agreement the team has with the city does offer some protection, but it does not assure the long term viability of the team in Jacksonville. Any new owner with a good team of lawyers could find enough holes to drive a Mayflower truck through if they desire.

Fans need to wake up.


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